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What Was the Standard of Care for a Medical Provider When Hurricane Irene Struck VA and NC?

Hurricane Irene drenched North Carolina and Virginia, and was to blame for the death of an 11-year-old boy when it sent a tree crashing through the roof of his home in Newport News, VA. Five other people in North Carolina and Virginia also died -- one teen died in a crash at an intersection where the traffic lights were out, and four people were killed by falling trees or limbs.

On the Outer Banks, waves destroyed the main road, knocked down homes and at least two piers, and forced a hospital to run on generator power.

All this raises the question: What is the standard of care medical providers must apply during emergency situations?  LaCoste v. Pendleton Methodist Hospital addressed this idea. LaCoste involved a 73-year-old New Orleans, Lousiana (LA), woman who died when she was recovering from pneumonia. She was on a ventilator when Pendleton Methodist Hospital lost power during Hurricane Katrina and then had its backup generator fail due to flooding.

With natural catastrophes like fires, earthquakes and hurricanes being commonplace, however, courts might be asked what type of care a hospital needs to supply during unexpected crises. The plaintiffs in LaCoste sued based on premises liability, as opposed to professional negligence. They alleged business decisions unrelated to medical care were to blame for the woman's death. A plaintiff alleging general negligence rather malpractice increases the liability to a hospital by opening the door to litigation by other patients who die from the same emergency unpreparedness versus the mistreatment of a medical professional.

Professional negligence by a medical provider happens when the professional deviates from the reasonable standard of care in the medical community and results in patient injury or death. Premises liability involves property owners, including hospitals, keeping property in a reasonably safe condition.

In LaCoste, a memo documented generator deficiencies prior to the hurricane. The memo evidenced the hospital knew there was a safety issue, but did not take care of it. The LaCoste case eventually settled.

The law in Louisiana is often unique in America, however, and the outcome of LaCoste does not say much about what a case in Virginia or North Carolina would look like. Under the law in Virginia, if you are hurt in a hospital while getting care, it is only a medical negligence case. The premises law would not apply. In negligence claims, the hospital is the judge of whether it followed the standard of care under the circumstances. A disaster would mean a judge and jury will likely give the facility a lot of slack, unless the conduct was extreme as may have been the case in the Big Easy claim.

Often, personal injury under circumstances of an emergency situation may give rise to several causes for actions, including medical malpractice and premises liability. Contact Shapiro & Appleton& Duffan, P.C. to discuss all possible allegations if you or a loved one suffered serious injuries or death from another's recklessness in the context of a natural disaster.

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