Health MEC liable for patient who fell to his death, court rules

Judge found that the patient had not been properly medicated or monitored

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A window in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape has won a case and can now claim monetary damages from the MEC for Health and Livingstone Hospital. This after her husband fell from the fifth floor of the hospital while being treated for alcohol withdrawal and secondary schizophrenia in October 2013. Photo: Brian Turner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

  • The High Court in Gqeberha has ruled that the Eastern Cape MEC for Health and Livingstone Hospital are liable to pay damages to the widow of a man who died after falling from the fifth floor of the hospital.
  • The man was admitted to the hospital in October 2013 for alcohol withdrawal.
  • The judge found that the patient had not been properly medicated or monitored.

The High Court in Gqeberha has found that the Eastern Cape MEC for Health and Livingstone Hospital are liable to pay damages to the widow of a man who died after falling from the fifth floor of the hospital.

In the ruling last week, Acting Judge Ivana Bands found that the patient, George Williams, had not been properly medicated or monitored. She said that had this been done, Williams would not have been “pacing up and down the ward, in confused, restless and disoriented state”, and would not have fallen to his death from the window.

Judge Bands said the conduct of the medical and nursing personnel who treated Williams after he was admitted to the hospital on 3 October 2013, “fell far short of what is regarded as sound practice” in dealing with patients suffering from alcohol withdrawal — delirium tremens which involves sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes — and secondary schizophrenia.

“Had he been properly medicated, it cannot be gainsaid [denied] that he would have been reduced to a calm and lightly dozing state. This would have enabled the medical and nursing staff to monitor his vital signs and his condition appropriately until such time that delirium tremens had abated,” Judge Bands said.

Read the judgment

Judge Bands’s finding of negligence means that Williams’s widow Jeanine can now pursue a monetary damages claim against the MEC and hospital. This could be determined at another trial or through negotiation.

Jeanine Williams, in her papers, contended that the hospital staff were under a legal duty to provide her husband with adequate and timeous medical treatment; that they had not properly sedated him, restricted his movements and monitored his condition.

The defendants, however, argued that Williams had been treated with sedatives, including diazepam (Valium) and that he had been put in an “enclosed locked ward” close to the nurses’ station.

Bands said Wiliams was a known alcoholic who was admitted to the hospital late on 3 October 2013. In the early hours of the morning, he had been given diazepam, with little effect. During the evening of 4 October, he was given more sedatives and an antipsychotic agent, also with no effect.

Soon after, at about 10:30pm, Williams broke the outside entrance glass door of the nurses’ tearoom and fell from the fifth floor. He died about an hour later.

Two key witnesses during the trial were Dr Candice Harris, a professional nurse and general practitioner, who testified for Williams, and Dr Michelle Walsh, a general surgeon, who testified for the MEC and the hospital.

In her evidence, Harris had said delirium tremens was a “medical emergency” and, according to guidelines, immediate management of the condition was necessary. She had stressed the importance of re-orientating the patient and said it was the nurse’s duty to inform the doctor if the patient was not responding to medication.

The judge said Walsh’s evidence was that it was not that the hospital was doing nothing - “they were doing something”.

“She said the sedation prescribed is usually based on what the assessing doctor thinks will have the desired effect to calm the patient to the extent that they would sit calmly in a chair. It is common cause that this desired state was never reached,” the judge said.

“Not only was he under-sedated, there is no evidence that the initial dose, which had no effect, was ever increased as per the published guidelines, in spite of multiple entries in the hospital records that he remained confused, disorientated, restless and walking up and down - and that he had become so agitated that the nursing staff feared he would assault them,” the judge said.

Bands said Williams had not been treated according to the guidelines, thus the MEC and the hospital are liable for any proven damages.

TOPICS:  Court Health

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