Eight years after his father died at a Chillicothe, Mo., hospital, David Gann learned from lawyers that they suspected Coval Gann and several other patients were murdered.
So the younger Gann in 2010 filed a wrongful-death lawsuit. He and four other plaintiff families alleged that Hedrick Medical Center for years failed to notify deceased patients’ relatives about the suspicions expressed by some hospital employees during a rash of deaths in 2002.
But it’s too late to seek damages, according to a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling.
Citing the state’s three-year statute of limitations on wrongful-death suits, the court’s 4-3 decision shields the hospital from civil liability and blocks one avenue to settling a 13-year mystery.
The ruling has relatives and some lawyers frustrated.
David Gann said he did not sue within three years of his father’s passing because hospital officials had told him and other families that the deaths resulted from natural causes.
“How would you come up with wrongful-death suit if you didn’t know anything was wrong?” he asked.
The civil cases claim that nine deaths and 18 medical emergencies were linked to a respiratory therapist who worked four months at Hedrick. Suits allege the employee intentionally poisoned patients with injections of insulin, a paralyzing drug called succinylcholine or some other substance, causing them to “code blue” and in some cases die.
Nobody has been criminally charged in connection with the deaths, but the Livingston County coroner said an investigation is continuing.
Court records have identified the former respiratory therapist at the center of the accusations as Jennifer Hall, although she is not among the defendants in the civil cases. In a January 2014 interview with The Kansas City Star, Hall, then a Shawnee resident, denied any wrongdoing and said she hoped to have her name cleared.
Saint Luke’s Health System, a defendant in the lawsuit, acquired the Chillicothe medical center a year after the alleged poisonings. Saint Luke’s has said no proof exists that killings took place and has denied claims that hospital officials covered up the incidents.
When Saint Luke’s took over the hospital’s operations, “we also inherited its history,” the company said in a statement released this past week. “We, too, are only interested in the truth and trust that the thorough investigation by law enforcement conducted at the time was done in good faith and with integrity.
“We are grateful to the Missouri Supreme Court for its hard work in arriving at last week’s thoughtful and fully researched opinion.”
The high court overruled a 2013 decision of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, which had said the three-year filing period on wrongful-death suits did not apply to cases of “fraudulent concealment” by health providers.
The appeals court stated that alleged actions taken by Hedrick administrators prevented litigants from being aware of the circumstances surrounding the deaths until after the statute of limitations had passed.
The high court’s majority opinion, written by Judge Mary R. Russell, noted that “it is difficult to reach a conclusion here that leaves the plaintiffs without a remedy.” Acknowledging that “the outcome is distasteful,” the judges nonetheless found that the state legislature had never written exceptions into a statute long on the books that sets time limits on wrongful-death filings.
On that point, Judge George W. Draper concurred. But in a strongly worded opinion of his own that was joined by two other judges, Draper wrote that lawmakers didn’t intend to enact wrongful-death legislation that “vindicates fraud, so long as one can beat the clock running on the statute of limitations.”
Some area lawyers agreed.
“What concerns me now is the potential for doctors and hospitals to misbehave and be rewarded,” said Independence injury lawyer Bob Buckley. “There are a lot of excellent and well-intentioned health care providers. But some who aren’t might make a mistake and think, ‘I’ll just not disclose this to anybody for three years.’”
Other Missouri lawyers were mystified that the Supreme Court had issued on the same day of the hospital suit decision a contradictory opinion on another wrongful-death case. In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the statute of limitations could not protect a Joplin area man, charged with arranging the 2009 murder of his wife, from being sued by the woman’s mother.
The murder charge was dropped in March after his son recanted incriminating statements.
The discrepancy in the two findings was due to a judge recusing herself from the Joplin case and being replaced by an appellate judge who sided with the majority. The replacement judge did not hear the Hedrick case.
“One case says the statute of limitations doesn’t matter and — on the same day — another says it does,” said Michael Wolff, dean of the Saint Louis University School of Law and a former judge on the Missouri Supreme Court. “I’ve been a lawyer in Missouri almost 40 years and I think that’s a first.”
It is not clear how the court will resolve the discrepancy. But Mike Manners, attorney for the families suing Hedrick and Saint Luke’s Health System, said he planned to request that the high court rehear his case on grounds that “a maxim of common law is that nobody is entitled to benefit from their own wrongdoing.”
Limitations on wrongful-death filings vary from state to state. In Kansas, a two-year statute of limitations starts ticking when families discover that a wrongful death may have occurred. In some cases, the Kansas window extends to as much as 10 years after the date of death.
To be accredited, hospitals must adhere to a variety of internal practices for reporting and investigating potential cases of wrongful death.
“It’s hard for most people to believe a hospital would use these statutes as a protective blanket to let them harm patients,” said Dave Dillon, a vice president of the Missouri Hospital Association.
In any event, the ruling on the Hedrick lawsuits neither confirms nor rejects accusations of poisonings and a cover-up at the hospital.
The civil claims are documented in stacks of affidavits and deposition transcripts mostly facilitated by two law firms — Langdon & Emison of Lexington, Mo., and North Kansas City-based McCollum & Griggs. After looking into long-swirling speculation of foul play at the hospital, the lawyers approached several families of patients who inexplicably “coded” eight years earlier.
A Hedrick physician, a risk manager and Livingston County Coroner Scott Lindley were among several alleging that Hall was present when the incidents occurred and that employees’ suspicions were brought to the attention of hospital management.
She remained employed for several weeks, during which others died, while Hedrick’s legal counsel and an outside evaluator looked into the matter.
“The review did not indicate cause for concern,” an administrative memo later reported. “The county coroner and prosecuting attorney were informed of our concerns, although our concerns were unsubstantiated.”
Many of the patients who died were elderly, such as Coval Gann, 82.
The youngest, David W. Harper, was 37. He was being treated for pneumonia when he inexplicably coded and his breathing stopped, according to court records.
“There’s still no justice for David,” daughter Alicia Harper of Chillicothe said this past week. “He’s missing out on enjoying his grandkids, and someday he’ll miss out on his great-grandkids.”
Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren pledged in 2012 to reopen a criminal investigation. Early last year he said the probe could be wrapped up that summer, but still no apparent action has been taken.
Citing a gag order on pending lawsuits against Hedrick, Warren would not comment for this story. But coroner Lindley said: “It’s still under investigation and we’re moving forward.”
Hall’s attorney, who requested the gag order, did not return phone calls.