Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 7, 2008

End-of-life lawsuit strikes at Stanford protocols

Groundbreaking suit could define 'comfort care' for the dying

by Sue Dremann

Stanford Hospital & Clinics is attempting to get a lawsuit on end-of-life care thrown out of court.

But a Palo Alto family's attorney threw the hospital's own policies and procedures back at the hospital during a Santa Clara County Superior Court hearing Tuesday, alleging the hospital failed to follow its own policies.

The case relates to a 2005 incident two days before Christmas in which a dying patient was moved from his hospital room, and from his belongings, to an end-of-life unit against the patient's wishes and without the family's knowledge.

Peter Williams Allen's family left the hospital Dec. 23 believing he would remain in his hospital room. The family told the hospital they were looking into home-hospice care, according to the lawsuit.

But within an hour of the family leaving Allen's bedside, a physician had him transferred to an "end-of-life" unit in the hospital. The family was not notified of the transfer and were not told of Allen's subsequent death for many hours, they allege. The hospital also misplaced Allen's remains for a time, releasing his body without the family's consent to a mortuary not of the family's choosing, the suit alleges.

Attorney James Geagan, representing Allen's family, said that most people, upon hearing the facts of the case, would call them "outrageous."

"Stanford needs an attitude adjustment in this case," Geagan told the court.

Geagan alleged Stanford's policy states that there "must be meticulous attention to the family."

And patients and their families have rights to information and options for end-of-life care, he said.

"It's absolutely the decision of the family — not the occupational therapist, not the resident (physician)," Geagan said.

Stanford's attorney, Daniela P. Stoutenburg, told the court that the Allen case is without substance and is based purely on emotion. She argued the case had already been adjudicated with respect to other defendants, namely, the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, when the clinic was dismissed from the suit.

"All of the allegations and facts have been ruled upon. ... All care and treatment was OK. The plaintiff is bringing in new allegations and facts," Stoutenburg said.

Health-care providers do not have a duty to a patient's family, she added.

Stanford Hospital & Clinics declined to comment.

A problem with the Allen case is there is no definition of what "comfort care" means. By itself, it doesn't mean anything, Geagan said. But Allen v. Stanford is a "critical rights" case, getting to the heart of what patient and family rights are to a death with dignity, he added.

"He was clearly dying from 7:30 p.m. and nobody called the family," Geagan said. "There was no consent, no information — no family."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Rick, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2008 at 8:57 pm

I just want to point out that this lawsuit seems pretty suspect just given its reference to an "end-of-life" unit in the hospital. I was a medical resident at Stanford from June 2003 to June 2006. I know every floor, every hallway, and every nurse's station. And I can assure you that Stanford Hospital, unfortunately, had no such unit. The fact that the family is claiming there was one implies thay have either grossly misunderstood the events leading to the patient's death, or less likely, are just making stuff up in the confusion of their grief.


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