A wrongful death is a death caused by another person without legal justification. Negligence is the most common cause of a wrongful death. Hospital malpractice occurs when healthcare providers employed by a hospital are negligent. When hospital malpractice results in the death of hospitalized patients, their families can seek justice by bringing a wrongful death claim.
A recent study found that avoidable hospital errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, more than a quarter of a million patients die unnecessarily during their hospitalization. That's nearly 700 deaths each day.
Preventable deaths in hospitals account for almost 10% of all deaths in the United States. More deaths are caused by medical malpractice than by traffic accidents or respiratory disease.
The problem isn't new. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine referred to medical malpractice as an “epidemic.” Reforms have been periodically discussed, but the situation hasn't improved. Rather, the medical community's response to the problem has largely been denial.
The Leading Cause of Hospital Wrongful Deaths
The leading cause of preventable patient deaths in hospitals is a blood clot, known in medical terms as a venous thromboembolism. Dangerous blood clots in large veins, usually in the legs, are called deep-vein thrombosis. Blood clots that block the main artery of the lungs are called pulmonary embolisms. Both can lead to heart attacks by blocking the flow of blood to the heart.
Clotting is often a consequence of surgery. Hospitals know that, so they should take care to monitor their patients after surgery. That monitoring is usually left to the hospital's nursing staff.
Surgeons may be negligent when they use a more invasive procedure than is necessary to perform a surgery, thus increasing the risk of post-surgical clotting. However, surgeons generally have a good bit of discretion in choosing a surgical technique. Surgeons are only accountable when they use a technique that most surgeons would regard as departing from the proper standard of care.
Hospitals may be responsible for clotting when they fail to administer and monitor preventative medications. Anticoagulants can prevent clotting, but if they are not administered in the proper dosage, they can be just as dangerous as a blood clot. Monitoring patients is critical because anticoagulants can lead to internal bleeding. Hospital staff may be guilty of negligence when they administer too much or too little medication, or when they fail to monitor patients as they recover from surgery.
Other Causes of Hospital Wrongful Death
Medication errors are another significant cause of hospital wrongful deaths. They usually happen because nursing staff confuses one patient with another. Instead of giving Belinda Smith her life-saving medication, they give it to Linda Smith, who has an allergic reaction to the medication and dies.
Surgical errors also cause wrongful deaths. Doctors try to justify errors by calling them a “known risk,” but knowing that carelessness is a risk doesn't excuse it. Deadly surgical errors include making careless incisions that cause internal bleeding, leaving instruments or sponges in the body that cause deadly infections, and operating on the wrong body part (such as removing a healthy kidney rather than the diseased kidney).
Chest tubes always create a malpractice risk for hospital patients.Chest tubes that aren't properly removed can cause air bubbles to enter the patient's blood.The failure to seal an incision properly after a chest tube removal can have fatal consequences when air bubbles enter the patient's brain, heart, or lungs.
Chest tubes can also be mistaken for feeding tubes by hospital staff. Introducing medicine or food through a chest tube can be a fatal mistake.
Anesthesia errors kill patients during surgery. Too much anesthesia can cause brain damage, sending a patient into a coma from which the patient never awakens.
Hospital-acquired infections have long been a primary killer of patients who are not otherwise at risk of death. Infections are spread when doctors and hospital staff fail to wash their hands or to sterilize instruments. In some cases, hospitals have neglected to clean their air filtrations systems, spreading deadly infections throughout the hospital. Proving the cause of a hospital-acquired infection can be challenging, but a pattern of deaths in the same hospital can provide evidence that the hospital has neglected to address a systemic problem.
Remedies for Hospital Wrongful Death
When a hospital patient dies due to medical negligence, certain family members are entitled to seek recourse against the negligent party. If the death was caused by the errors of nurses or other hospital staff members, the hospital is generally liable. If the error was made by a doctor who is not employed by the hospital, the doctor is personally responsible. However, the hospital may also be responsible if the hospital administration granted privileges to a doctor who they knew to be incompetent.
In California, the family members of the deceased victim who are entitled to bring a wrongful death claim include the victim's:
- Living children
- Grandchildren of a child who has died
- Siblings if the deceased has no surviving children
Parents, stepchildren, and certain minors may also be entitled to pursue a wrongful death claim if they were dependent on the deceased victim for their support.
Compensation for a wrongful death includes:
- The financial support the victim would have provided if the victim had not died
- The value of services (such as housekeeping) that the victim would have provided if the victim had not died
- The value of gifts the family members would have received from the victim if the victim had not died
- The loss of the deceased's love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support, and guidance
California wrongful death lawyers usually use expert witnesses to calculate the value of financial support and services that a malpractice victim would have provided. Lawyers rely on the testimony of family members and people who knew the victim to explain the non-financial contributions that the victim made to his or her family.
Our Orange County medical malpractice wrongful death lawyers also rely on expert witnesses to prove that hospital malpractice caused the death. It is important for surviving family members to contact a lawyer immediately so that appropriate experts can be identified and a claim can be made before the time for making a wrongful death claim expires.