Memorial Hospital to pay $3.8 million in medical malpractice settlement

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Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital has agreed to pay $3.8 million to settle a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who has been in a coma since 2015, when she went into cardiac arrest in an emergency room waiting area after being discharged.

Cynthia Gutierrez’s family claimed hospital staff disregarded signs she was experiencing heart failure when she came to the emergency room with labored breathing and a known history of diabetes and kidney failure, according to allegations outlined in a complaint filed in October 2016 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Emergency room staff gave Gutierrez, who was 33 at the time, a narcotic and released her, according to the complaint. Her family sued the hospital, arguing the hospital has a pattern of avoiding care for indigent patients and those, like Gutierrez, covered by Medi-Cal, California’s health care program for low-income residents.

Vanessa DeGier, a spokeswoman for Memorial Hospital, said the Gutierrez family’s assertions “are inconsistent with our philosophy of care.”

“Santa Rosa Memorial and all those who work for us serve members of our community without regard to socioeconomic status,” she said. “Insurance and/or financial matters have NO influence on care decisions,” DeGier said in a statement.

The parties reached a settlement before they were scheduled to go to trial in November. It was approved March 29 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Illston.

The family’s attorney, Douglas Fladseth, said the agreement brings closure and crucial financial support for Gutierrez’s husband, José Huerta, and their three children, who were 15, 11 and 8 at the time she slipped into a coma. Gutierrez, who worked at the Panera Bread restaurant in Rohnert Park, is not expected to regain consciousness and remains under care at Kentfield Rehabilitation and Specialty Hospital, he said.

“It’s devastating to lose your mom and your wife,” Fladseth said.

DeGier said hospital officials couldn’t discuss details of Gutierrez’s case because of the terms of the settlement agreement. In an email statement, she said hospital staff serve anyone who comes to the emergency room, regardless of whether they are insured. “Caring for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable, is at the core of what we do and why we exist,” she said.

“First and foremost, our thoughts are with Ms. Gutierrez and her family and friends, who continue to grieve,” DeGier said in an email. “Circumstances like these are some of the most difficult we face.”

The Gutierrez family’s lawsuit details what they said was a pattern of grave missteps made by hospital staff when she arrived at the hospital about 3 a.m. Feb. 25, 2015. Her husband had taken Gutierrez there because she had been having trouble breathing since the day before.

Medical tests described in court documents showed Gutierrez’s blood sugar level was dangerously high. The test results, combined with results from a chest X-ray and other tests, showed “clear evidence of life-threatening disease” and “evidence of heart failure,” according to court documents

Emergency department staff gave her a dose of the narcotic Dilaudid “ostensibly for right hand pain,” the court filings state. The drug is also a respiratory depressant and her family alleged it was a poor choice for a woman having trouble breathing.

She was discharged about 7 a.m. and was in a hospital waiting room when she collapsed. It would later be determined that Gutierrez was suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening complication of diabetes.

The lawsuit claimed hospital staff violated their own policies as well as the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which requires anyone coming to an emergency department to be stabilized and treated regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

“Instead of admitting Cynthia and providing the necessary screening tests and care, defendants chose instead to simply overdose her on narcotic pain medications which would further suppress her respiratory system and discharge her from the hospital,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit drew comparisons between Gutierrez’s treatment and two other patients with lawsuits against the hospital that ended in settlements for undisclosed amounts.

In one case, Michael Torres was found dead outside in the hospital parking lot about 12 hours after he was discharged from the emergency room. Torres had been given drugs to ease alcohol withdrawal but staff didn’t ensure he was stable before releasing him, missing signs of pneumonia, according to the complaint. Torres’ death triggered investigations by federal and state regulatory agencies overseeing hospitals that led to changes in hospital training and policies.

In the Gutierrez case, Dr. Elliot Brandwene, an emergency room physician involved in Gutierrez’s treatment, as well as Chase Dennis Emergency Medical Group and emergency physician staffing company Team Health were also defendants in the case. They were ordered to contribute about $500,000 toward the settlement amount. Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, which is operated by St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, was ordered to cover the rest.

The agreement awarded $1.1 million to Fladseth, the family’s attorney, plus another nearly $500,000 to cover legal fees. About $733,000 will pay off liens from health insurance providers and cover Gutierrez’s medical care. Huerta and his children will receive the remaining $1.46 million, mostly in disbursements over time.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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