The Texas Supreme Court will likely decide whether an autopsy is health care covered under Texas’ medical malpractice laws that make it more difficult for medical malpractice victims to recover compensatory damages for the harm they suffered as a result of medical negligence and limits (caps) the amount of compensatory damages they may recover, no matter how long they suffered or how much the harm they suffered affected their lives and the lives of their families.
What is at stake for the plaintiff is a jury verdict in her favor in the amount of $2 million for a hospital’s mishandling the autopsy of her husband following his unexplained death on the day he was to be discharged from the hospital following successful surgery.
If the Texas Supreme Court determines that the autopsy performed at another hospital owned by the same nonprofit health care system (the physician who performed the autopsy was a member of the same pathology group that provided services to both hospitals) was health care, then the plaintiff’s verdict will likely be overturned.
The plaintiff’s husband was 61-years-old when he was admitted to the defendant hospital almost twelve years ago, for treatment related to kidney stones. He had successful surgery and was determined to be ready for discharge when he was found in his hospital bed unresponsive and resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. Because there was no explanation for his unexpected death and his wife suspected that he may have died from an overdose of narcotic pain medication that he had been given at the hospital, his wife wanted an autopsy performed to determine the cause of death.
The wife was faced with paying $10,000 for a private autopsy or agreeing to the hospital’s offer to arrange for an autopsy free of charge. She expected that the autopsy would be performed by an independent physician but the defendant hospital arranged for the autopsy to be performed at a related hospital by a related physician.
The wife was advised that the autopsy results were inconclusive regarding the cause of death but she was not told at that time that toxicology tests of her husband’s blood and urine were not performed, which may have answered the narcotic overdose question.
The wife brought a lawsuit against the hospital, alleging negligence and fraud (she alleged that she would have paid for a private autopsy had she been told that the autopsy that the defendant hospital offered would be performed by a hospital owned by the same company).
The physician who performed the autopsy was deposed during the litigation and testified that he had removed the man’s heart and had stored it in his lab, without telling anyone that he still had the heart. The defendant hospital obtained the heart from the physician but refused to turn it over to the plaintiff. It was not until an appeals court ordered that the heart be turned over to the plaintiff that the defendant hospital finally relinquished the heart.
The plaintiff had the heart tested, which showed no human DNA (which may have been due to the manner in which it was preserved, or may indicate that the heart turned over was not human). Eventually, a judge fined the parent company of both hospitals $250,000 for the manner in which the heart and blood serum were handled.
Under this backdrop, it is readily apparent that the plaintiff, and the residents of Texas, have a great interest in how the Texas Supreme Court rules in this case.
If you were injured (or worse) as a result of medical negligence in Texas, you should promptly seek the legal advice of a Texas medical malpractice attorney who may investigate your medical negligence claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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