A lawsuit alleging that Stanford University Hospital transferred a terminally ill 80-year-old patient without his family's knowledge and then "lost" the body for a time is scheduled to return to court Jan. 17.
The case stems from a Christmas Eve, 2005, incident in which the family of a Peter Williams Allen -- a Palo Alto resident who was near death from a congestive heart condition, kidney failure, a stroke and an infection -- left the hospital Dec. 23 believing Allen would remain in a room with his belongings at least through Christmas Eve.
Instead, the suit alleges that a physician within an hour had him transferred to an "end-of-life" unit in the hospital, without his belongings. His arms were restrained, leaving him unable to use his hands -- his only post-stroke way of communicating, the suit alleges. He suffered a stroke while in the hospital that left him unable to speak.
Hospital officials are defending the transfer and actions and will seek to have the case dismissed when it comes up for hearing Jan. 17 in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.
"Stanford Hospital and Clinics has reviewed this matter and believes that the physicians, nurses and staff provided appropriate and caring treatment to Mr. Allen," Shelley Hebert, Stanford Hospital and Medical Clinics director of public affairs, said. In depositions, physicians involved said Allen's arms were restrained to prevent him from pulling out feeding and other tubes.
No dollar amount is specified in the lawsuit, but the suit alleges elder abuse, negligence, infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death. It asks for damages that include general damages, funeral and burial expenses, punitive damages, attorney fees and legal costs, according James Geagan, a Sonoma-based attorney representing Allen's family.
A family member told the Palo Alto Weekly the primary motive behind the lawsuit is to force Stanford to review and change its protocols relating to notification of families about changes in care status for seriously ill or terminally ill patients.
In addition, after Allen died in the early hours of Dec. 24, the hospital allowed a Menlo Park mortuary to pick up the body, without the family having yet chosen a mortuary or having signed a release form, according to the lawsuit.
Family members first learned that Allen's body had been released when a representative of a different mortuary, Roller & Hapgood Tinney Inc. of Palo Alto, called the hospital while the family was present and was told that hospital personnel didn't know where Allen's body was as there was no release form.
Allen was conscious when family members left his bedside at 4 p.m. on Dec. 23, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the family wanted Allen to remain in his hospital room with all of his belongings and Christmas tree, and had discussed this with on-duty physicians. The family believed he would remain in his room until at least the next day so arrangements could be made to move him home for hospice care.
One Stanford physician said in a deposition that the doctor who ordered the transfer "did not believe that consent by the patient or family was required to transfer a patient from one unit to another. (The doctor) testified that it happened quite often that the family leaves a patient in one unit and returns to find a patient in another unit."
The responsible doctor, who is doing his residency at Stanford, said in a deposition that he understood the family approved the transfer to the end-of-life unit, but noted the family had discussed that the treatments Allen was receiving would continue until the following day. The family alleges that life-sustaining treatments were withdrawn without the family's knowledge or consent, and one family member said the family believes Allen's personal belongings were being removed while he was still in the room and conscious but unable to communicate.
The lawsuit alleges that as a result of a breakdown in protocol at Stanford, hospital staff in the end-of-life unit assumed Allen had no family; that staff in the cardiac unit knew the family was highly involved in Allen's care but did not forward the family's contact information to end-of-life unit nurses. Allen's family did not learn of his death for more than eight hours, according to the lawsuit.