SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif., Sept. 13, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Malpractice, wrongful death, fraud, conspiracy and a cover up, might seem the elements of a TV medical drama. But in the allegations of Sara Taylor concerning the death of her husband and its tragic aftermath, these charges are all too real. Mrs. Taylor is the plaintiff in a suit against California's Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, part of the Tenet Healthcare Corporation, and an affiliated surgeon Donald Ramberg, M.D. Her attorneys— Steven R. Vartazarian (The Vartazarian Law Firm, Sherman Oaks) and Tyrone Maho (Maho and Prentice, Santa Barbara) assert that Sierra Vista purposely obtained a bogus autopsy report from a suspect pathologist and conspired with Dr. Ramberg to conceal the true circumstances surrounding her husband's death following a commonly performed surgery.
Mr. Maho and Mr. Vartazarian won a rare favorable ruling from the San Luis Obispo Superior Court that will allow Mrs. Taylor to not only proceed on a medical malpractice and fraud claim, but will also allow the jury to award punitive damages against the defendants. "In California," Mr. Vartazarian explains, "you must show the court that there is a substantial probability, based upon clear and convincing evidence, that the plaintiff will prevail on the punitive damages claim before the court will allow you to include it in your complaint."
What's remarkable about this case is not only did the hospital know exactly why Mr. Taylor died; it is well documented in the medical records. The detailed chronology begins on January 27, 2010, when Tyrone Taylor went into Sierra Vista for a cervical discectomy—an operation performed to remove a herniated disc in his neck. Within 12 hours of the surgery, Mr. Taylor experienced internal bleeding in and around the surgical sight, considered a routine complication. What happened next was anything but routine.
Although Mr. Taylor began exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of an internal blood pocket compressing his airway, no one examined him for this complication. Instead, he was misdiagnosed as having a sore throat. Within 15 minutes, the blood pocket expanded, cutting off his airway and asphyxiating him. By the time he was found, Mr. Taylor had turned blue and had no pulse. Emergency efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. If discovered in time, Mrs. Taylor's attorneys maintain that this problem is easily and quickly resolved.
The story doesn't end there. When Mrs. Taylor was informed of her husband's death the following morning, hospital officials claimed the cause was undetermined. Unbeknownst to her, the emergency room doctor had indicated in the medical records that an expanding post-operative hematoma had caused an airway obstruction, which resulted in Mr. Taylor's death. Yet, Sierra Vista's risk management officer told Mrs. Taylor that the hospital was ignorant of her husband's cause of death and an autopsy was required. Over the next several days, Sierra Vista management visited Mrs. Taylor's home to obtain her consent. Additionally, despite having been present during the attempt to resuscitate Mr. Taylor, Dr. Ramberg refused to meet with Mrs. Taylor until the autopsy was performed.
The hospital then hired an ethically suspect itinerant pathologist, George L. Vandermark, M.D.—a doctor who changed his name from Bolduc to Vandermark after being discredited and dismissed for lying and botched work in several California counties—to perform an autopsy. The suit argues that the pathologist came up with a bogus reason for the death to help the hospital avoid a medical malpractice lawsuit. He attributed the death to natural causes from a fatty liver, though under testimony was unable to explain how this could occur. Mrs. Taylor eventually secured an independent autopsy that confirms that the post-operative hematoma was the clear cause of her husband's death.
As a result of these facts, Mr. Vartazarian alleges that in addition to committing medical malpractice, Sierra Vista and Dr. Ramberg committed fraud when they conspired to cover up the true cause of Mr. Taylor's death from his wife. After three hearings and extensive argument and briefing on the issue, the judge allowed her to file an amended complaint, which included a cause of action for fraud and conspiracy and a prayer for punitive damages.
In its ruling, the court wrote: "there are triable questions as to 1) whether Sierra Vista feigned ignorance of the cause of death when the ER physician clearly attributed Mr. Taylor's airway obstruction to his hematoma in the medical records; 2) why Sierra Vista retained an outside pathologist for an autopsy when a doctor was present at the time of death; and 3) why Sierra Vista hurried to secure the Plaintiff's consent to the autopsy."
On a personal level, Sara Taylor experienced the loss of her husband at a hospital she expected would provide conscientious care. Then it intentionally misled her to avoid a potential lawsuit and convinced her to have an unnecessary and purposely inaccurate autopsy to cover up their negligent medical care.
"This is not the first time that Sierra Vista has been sued for unscrupulous practices," Vartazarian notes. "These actions also call into question the responsibility of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which owns not just Sierra Vista but some 49 other hospitals throughout the county."
"Our trust in medical care is certainly undermined when you see the lengths a local hospital like this will go to hide its mistakes," says Maho. "What's so alarming about this case is that they almost got away with it." News contact: Cindy Rakowitz, [email protected]
SOURCE Maho and Prentice, Santa Barbara and The Vartazarian Law Firm in Sherman Oaks California