July 2011 Archives

Patients May be Ill Advised to Visit Hospitals in July: Recently Reviewed Studies Confirm that Hospital Deaths Spike in Summer Months

July 27, 2011

Patients should always be aware of the possibility for medical negligence or medical malpractice when visiting a hospital or any other medical facility. However, recently reviewed studies show that July may be the most dangerous month for patients in large, teaching hospitals. What has been know as the "July Effect" by many in the medical field describes the spike in medical errors seen when new resident physicians arrive at a teaching hospital.

Prior to the release of a new review of several studies on the matter, what has been known as the "July Effect" was largely unsubstantiated. However, this review, which was co-authored by Dr. John Q. Young, the associate program director for the residency training program in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, found that medical malpractice and patient death rates did indeed increase during the summer months in teaching hospitals, especially in July. The review not only indicated an 8 % increase in patient death rates in July, but it also indicated that patient hospital stays were longer and hospital charges were higher in the month of July.

The review analyzes 39 studies that have been conducted on this issue and is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In their review of these studies, Dr. Young and his team focused on the findings of the larger and higher quality studies. The findings confirmed that medical errors and mortality rates in teaching hospitals do increase in and near the month of July.

"The July Effect," as it has come to be known, is caused by the changeover that occurs at many teaching hospitals in July. During this month, 20-30% of the more experienced resident doctors leave the hospital, and these doctors are replaced with less experienced first year residents. Dr. Young told The New York Times' Vital Signs: "This changeover is dramatic, and it affects everything. It's like a football team in a high-stakes game, and in the middle of that final drive you bring out four or five players who never played in the pros before and don't know the playbook, and the players that remained get changed to positions they never played before, and they never practiced together. That's what happens in July." Also according to Dr. Young, it is not just the new residents' lack of knowledge that may pose risks for patients coming into hospitals in July, but the increase in medical errors and deaths may also be attributed to the new residents' general lack of familiarity with the hospital and its systems.

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Children Have Lowered Risk of Accident-Related Injuries when Grandparents Are Driving the Car

July 22, 2011

Here's some news Atlanta car accident attorneys don't hear every day. A study has found that children who are involved in a car accident when one of their grandparents is driving a car, have a much lowered risk of suffering injuries than when they are involved in an auto accident in a car being driven by their parents.

The study was based on data from insurance claims across fifteen states from 2003 to 2007. In all, more than 12,000 children were included in the study. The children were below the age of fifteen. Researchers found, to their surprise, that children who were involved in an auto accident when the car was being driven by a grandparent were at a 50% lower risk of suffering injuries than those who were in cars being driven by their parents.

These grandparents were all above the age of sixty-five, with an average age of 58. The study found that only about 10% of the children in the study who were being driven by the grandparents, were involved in car accidents. However, the injuries suffered by these children constituted less than 10% of the total. Children, who were riding in a car with their parents accounted for approximately 1.05% of the children were injured, while children riding with their grandparents accounted for just .70% of the children who were injured.

Those are surprising findings, considering that senior motorists above the age of sixty-five have typically been considered to be some of the most at-risk motorists. Elderly drivers may be seen as being much safer than teen drivers, but they suffer from several medical and health challenges as they age, that affect their ability to drive safely.

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Wrongful Death Action against Motel Owner Comes to an End in High Court

July 19, 2011

Although Georgia's Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a motel does not have a legal duty to check on a guest's welfare at his wife's request, the decision did leave open the question of whether the court may impose on hotel owners the duty to summon medical aid for a guest actually observed to be in distress, according to the Fulton County Daily Report. Accordingly, this area of premise liability appears to be continuing to evolve. For those of us who handle wrongful death cases, it seems clear that a motel has the responsibility, at the very least, to summon medical aid if they are aware of a person in distress.

The majority opinion explained its reasoning, referring to the failure of Georgia hotel night staffers to check on a man who died of heart failure after his wife's repeated pleas from Texas as an issue of "humanity and morality," not legality. Her husband was found the next morning by a maid, able to speak but unable to move from the floor. He died a short time later. While the Court acknowledged the tragedy of the event, to rule for the plaintiff, it said, "would be an epitomization of the adage 'bad facts make bad law."

The decision to grant the motel's motion for summary judgment came despite testimony from the widow detailing her numerous failed attempts to alert motel employees to her husband's plight. It also came despite a favorable autopsy from a cardiologist that revealed her husband might have survived had he received medical treatment that night.

This decision is particularly interesting to wrongful death attorneys who know it is a long-settled duty of innkeepers to maintain the safety of hotel premises for visitors. While I can understand the Court's reasoning in light of case law precedents, I disagree with the court's decision not to change that precedent. The FCDR reports that case law cited by the plaintiff's counsel seemed to suggest that this duty applied solely where the operator of a premises knew the guest was in imminent danger because he had observed it himself. In addition, holding the motel liable would also give rise to public concerns about interference with guest privacy, something the legislative body is reluctant to do.

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Georgia Supreme Court Rules Store Can Be Held Liable for Wrongful Deaths in Drunk Driving Accident

July 18, 2011

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that a convenience store that sold beer to a motorist, who was later involved in a fatal car accident that killed him and five other people, can be held liable in the auto accident. It's an important decision, and will give people the right to recover not just from the driver involved in the accident, but also from the parties involved in serving alcohol to the responsible driver.

The Supreme Court overturned the ruling by a lower court, which had held that the convenience store that sold alcohol could not be held liable. The convenience store located in Clinch County, was named in the lawsuit after a motorist purchased a 12-pack of beer at the store just four hours before the accident. The man was later involved in a terrible accident involving a van that was going in the opposite direction. The accident killed him and five other people. His alcohol level at the time was about .181 percent, which is more than twice the legal limit in Georgia.

The families of those killed in the accident had sued the convenience store, but the Georgia Court Of Appeals decided in favor of the store. The court based its opinion on the fact that the beer had not been sold for the purpose of being consumed on the premises. The Supreme Court has now overturned that ruling.

The ruling adds heft to Georgia's dram shop laws, which allows persons who have been injured in an accident or the families of those killed in an accident caused by drunk drivers, to hold the establishment that served the alcohol liable. Under dram shop liability, any establishment that serves alcohol, including clubs, pubs, bars, taverns and convenience stores, can be held liable for any accident that occurs after the person consumes alcohol in these establishments or purchases alcohol from these establishments.

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Two Persons Injured in Atlanta Truck Accident

July 17, 2011

Two people were injured earlier in an accident involving a truck that crashed into a railway bridge. The impact of the accident caused a huge block of concrete to fall off from the bridge, and onto the truck as well as another car below. The truck driver and the occupant of another vehicle sustained injuries in the accident.

According to authorities, the accident occurred at about nine in the morning, when the truck was trying to clear the railway bridge. It was a 13-foot high truck with a hydraulic lift, and it was trying to clear the bridge which is just about 13 feet and 5 inches high. The lift struck the bridge, leading to a large chunk of concrete breaking off and collapsing. The heavy 25-foot chunk of concrete fell on the truck, trapping the driver inside. Some more bridge debris fell onto another vehicle that was just behind the truck.

The driver of the truck was trapped inside for more than an hour. It took fire fighters that long to extricate him from the truck. He has suffered injuries to his leg and feet. The driver of the other vehicle that was also struck by the concrete debris has also suffered injuries. None of the injuries are reported to be life-threatening.

Injury attorneys which handle trucking accidents regular deal with truck accidents in which a driver or shipper fails to secure their loads. In this case, the driver of the truck has been charged with failure to obey a traffic control device, and failure to secure loads. The bridge had to be closed down for more than 48 hours while authorities determined whether it was safe for traffic to flow again. However, according to authorities, the damage to the bridge seems to be merely cosmetic, and doesn't really affect the load-bearing capability of the bridge.

According to Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, safety hazards with trucks striking the bridge have been a frequent problem over the past few years. There are several spots on the bridge where you can see damage denoting spots where trucks have collided with the bridge. According to Councilwoman Moore, she will look at finding ways to cut down the volumes of truck traffic underneath the bridge.

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Eliminating Errors in Patient Handoffs Key to Reducing Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

July 6, 2011

Very rarely will only one physician be responsible for a patient over the course of his or her entire medical treatment. When that responsibility is passed on to another caregiver, it is known as a "patient handoff." Responsibility can be transferred from institution to institution, from one physician to another or even from nurse to nurse (i.e. during shift changes).

The goal is to provide well-timed and accurate information about a patient's treatment, condition and any recent or anticipated changes in their care plan. Unfortunately, this goal is being stymied by an escalating trend towards incomplete patient information, missing tests and poor communication among physicians, and is the result of an influx of available professionals in the healthcare field, according to a recent report by American Medical News. Juxtaposed with this increase in issues is an increase in the risk for legal liability. In one case, a "38-year-old woman detected a lump in her breast and was referred by her primary care physician to a surgeon. The surgeon found no mass, but recommended she be re-examined in one month. Each physician assumed the other would do the follow-up." Nine months and no follow-up later, the patient was diagnosed with breast cancer.

As a personal injury lawyer, I know it is extremely important to have good hand offs of patients. Alan Lembitz, MD, vice president of COPIC, a professional liability insurance company based in Denver, Colorado, suggests that health professionals combat legal risks by being more aware of potential communication failures and creating safety checklists. Although Mr. Lembitz is correct in the need for better handoffs, the reason he gave is incorrect. The reason to improve patient handoffs is patient safety. Reduced legal liability is simply a beneficial side effect. In other words, do the things that make a patient safe because it is the right thing to do and a reduction in legal liability will naturally follow. The Hospitals and Health Networks has compiled a list of 10 tips for effective handoffs:

1. Allow for face-to-face handoffs whenever possible;
2. Ensure two-way communication during the handoff process;
3. Allow as much time as necessary for handoffs;
4. Use both verbal and written means of communication;
5. Conduct handoffs at the patient bedside whenever possible. Involve patients
and families in the handoff process. Provide clear information at discharge;
6. Involve staff in the development of handoff standards;
7. Incorporate communication techniques, such as SBAR, in the handoff
process. Require a verification process to ensure that information is both
received and understood;
8. In addition to information exchange, handoffs should clearly outline the
transfer of patient responsibility from one provider to another;
9. Use available technology, such as the electronic medical record, to streamline
the exchange of timely, accurate information; and,
10. Monitor use and effectiveness of the handoff. Seek feedback from staff.

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Former Lawyer Uses Infamous "Hot Coffee" Case to Stir up

July 5, 2011

Products liability attorneys know all about the "hot coffee" case. It has been heralded as the quintessential example of a frivolous lawsuit. In 1994, a 79 year-old Texas woman sued McDonald's after she spilled the entire contents of a Styrofoam cup of joe onto her lap. The details of exactly what happened have been muddled over the years. Some claim the accident was entirely her fault; she was multi-tasking while driving her car and she should have known that the liquid was hot. It was, after all, coffee. It turns out that the prevalent theories may not be quite true.

At least, that is what former Oregon plaintiff's lawyer Susan Saladoff claims in her new pro-plaintiff's documentary entitled "Hot Coffee." The woman wasn't driving the car, her grandson was. And anyway, the facts show the car was at a complete stop while she was trying to prepare it and its temperature was a whopping 190 degrees. At the time, most other restaurants served their morning beverages at a much lower temperature of 150-160 degrees. McDonald's claims the high temperature was necessary to maintain "premium taste," but their own research showed that over 800 people had reported similar experiences - an indication, the judge said, that the company willfully and recklessly conducted its business at the time. As for the plaintiff, she suffered third-degree burns over much of her lower body and spent eight days in the hospital. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

While McDonald's policies have long since been modified, Saladoff felt it necessary to highlight cases like these in her film because, she told the National Law Journal, the plight of the plaintiff is often overlooked. "The other side of this issue has monopolized the conversation because of the amount of money they have," she said. She decided to make the film after 25 years of practicing law. "After 25 years, the truth is you get sort of worn down," she said.

As a plaintiff's personal injury lawyer, I can certainly see where Saladoff is coming from. Oftentimes the defendants do indeed have more resources, especially since they are often large companies with a huge financial backing and an outstanding public reputation. The plaintiff becomes a small fish wallowing in a large pond when it comes to cases like this. Saladoff also points out another interesting view. "...Juries became less sympathetic and winning became harder. It would get me angry that I couldn't tell my clients that I could get them justice" she says. This film, she hopes, will at least start the conversation that will change everything.

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