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Judge Gives Preliminary Approval of Class-Action Settlement by Katrina Victims

Source: NY Times - Sheri Fink

Posted on 25 Jul 2011

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A New Orleans judge last Thursday gave preliminary approval for settlement that would end a class-action lawsuit against one of the nation’s largest publicly owned health care companies on behalf of people trapped at a hospital after Hurricane Katrina.

Under the settlement, the company, Tenet Healthcare Corporation, and a subsidiary would pay $25 million to patients and visitors who were injured at Memorial Medical Center, and to survivors of the dead. The settlement would terminate all liability for the claims. The money, minus legal fees, would be divided by a court-appointed administrator. The number of people entitled to a share of the payment is unknown, but there were 187 patients and about 800 visitors in the hospital during the crisis.

Judge Rosemary Ledet of Civil District Court in Orleans Parish called the agreement “fair, reasonable and adequate.” The parties reached a tentative deal in March during jury selection for a trial, but the outlines were kept confidential until Thursday.

The bodies of 45 patients were found at Memorial after Katrina hit in August 2005. Some doctors later acknowledged hastening the deaths of patients by injecting them with drugs. No criminal charges were brought, and medical staff members said they had done their best under extraordinary conditions.

The lawsuit asserted that the hospital and its parent, Tenet Healthcare, had failed to prepare for and respond sufficiently to a foreseeable disaster. Patients and others who took shelter at Memorial were harmed, the plaintiffs said, because plans for evacuation and backup power were inadequate.

The hospital went dark after its backup generators failed, and helicopters hired by the corporation did not arrive until two days after the streets around Memorial flooded. Hospital maintenance staff warned before Katrina that the hospital’s electrical system was vulnerable to flooding.

In the settlement deal, Tenet and the hospital, which has since been sold, continue to deny all of the allegations brought against them in the case. Records in the case show that Tenet and hospital officials spent days frantically soliciting help for the hospital from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, state officials and private ambulance companies. Lawyers for Tenet and Memorial had lined up experts to testify that the city’s failed levees, a chaotic government response and the hurricane itself created the deadly environment.

Any complaints or objections to the settlement must be lodged before Sept. 27 and will be considered at a final hearing in October.