VA Palo Alto sued for veteran's 'wrongful death'

Lawsuit alleges hospital was negligent in leaving Douglas Wayne Ross unattended after surgery, heart attack

The family of a 72-year-old U.S. Navy veteran has filed a lawsuit this week against VA Palo Alto Health Care System, alleging that the hospital was reckless and negligent in preventing his death from a traumatic head injury a year ago.

According to the suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Douglas Wayne Ross died on May 5, 2016, about a week after he fell from a chair in his room, where he was allegedly left unattended. Ross, a Vietnam War veteran, had undergone an "intensive surgery" and suffered a heart attack shortly before the fall and was designated a "high risk for falls," attorney Niall P. McCarthy wrote in the suit.

The suit was filed on behalf of Ross' children, Douglas Wayne Ross Jr., Nicole Ross and Neville Ross, who are pursuing claims of wrongful death. It alleges that shortly before his fall, Ross had gone into cardiac arrest and experienced "shock." When hospital staff propped him on a chair, he was on multiple feeding tubes, his right foot was black and gangrenous and he was dependent on the hospital's nurses and doctors "for all activities of daily living and functional tasks," the suit states.

"The VA Palo Alto knew Mr. Ross was at a high risk of falls and in extremely poor physical health when it left him alone in this extremely precarious condition, unattended in his hospital room," the suit states.

According to the suit, Ross served as an armorer in the Navy between 1960 and 1064 and was assigned to the USS Hancock, which was stationed in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. After his military service, he operated a sailing business in the Virgin Islands and, more recently, moved to Jamestown and joined a gold miner's association.

Ross came to VA Palo Alto in February 2016 for surgery to increase blood flow to his extremities. The suit notes that Ross had hoped his revascularization surgery would "relieve pain he was experiencing in his legs so that he could return to gold panning." His doctors, however, had determined that he would require multiple surgeries because of the "complicated nature of his condition."

According to the suit, Ross suffered a heart attack after the first surgery and had to be revived. He continued to have poor blood circulation, which caused him to develop infections in the lower extremities. He also became increasingly dialysis-dependent and was put on "maximum amount of blood thinners" to treat his blood clots and prevent another heart attack.

The blood thinners, however, had put Ross at risk of bleeding excessively if he suffered a fall, the suit states. His doctors determined that he could not undergo any additional surgeries and filed a note that he was at a "high risk for falls."

Ross was reportedly in this state when he fell from his chair and hit his head. A week later, he died from injuries and complications caused by the fall, the suit states. McCarthy wrote that the hospital had left Ross alone in his chair for about 40 minutes, which he equates to leaving an infant unattended in a bath for the same amount of time.

"VA Palo Alto's conduct exemplifies a failure on its part to take reasonable and necessary precaution to ensure that Mr. Ross did not fall," the suit states. "VA Palo Alto's neglect and failure to provide due care ultimately caused Mr. Ross to suffer the devastating fall on April 28, 2016."

The VA had investigated the circumstances of Ross' death and concluded in response to a 2016 tort claim from the Ross family that "there was no negligent or wrongful act on the part of the employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs acting within the scope of employment that caused compensable harm." The VA denied the claim, triggering the lawsuit.

VA Palo Alto does not dispute, however, that Ross' death was caused by injuries that he suffered in a fall. Dr. Stephen C. Ezeji-Okoye, deputy chief of staff at the medical center, wrote in a letter to one of Ross' sons that because Ross "was injured as a result of a fall in his room, we'd like to offer our sincere apologies."

"We are always very concerned about fall prevention, and we continue to look for opportunities to reduce them even further by considering procedure changes based on what happened with this fall," Ezeji-Okoye wrote.


4 people like this
Posted by Bill D
a resident of another community
on May 20, 2017 at 2:08 pm

I am also a 75 year old Viet Nam (Gulf of Tonkin) Navy vet 1961-65.
I have had both knees replaced at the Palo Alto VA and have had several other surgeries performed there.
I have had excellent treatment and all medical staff were professional, caring and considerate. There were often times when nurses and doctors were extremely busy and had to focus on the most seriously ill or injured patients before dealing with those who were basically stable.
Those patients who were serious yet stable were seen as soon as time allowed.
I was in a private/semi-private room several times, and at other times, in a ward with other patients. The ward was good because we looked out for each other when possible A ward is a little noisy at times but still good.
In a private room its quiet but if you cant trigger the emergency notifier tied to you things can go bad quickly.
I have seen guys strongly refuse to be restrained in their wheel chair or who try to get out of bed when no nurses are nearby to stop them. I was one of those guys during one of my admissions. Fortunately I didnt fall and hit my head--though I easily could have.HAD I FALLEN IT WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN THE FAULT OF THE VA. Its not possible to have your own personal nurse so when someone considered a potential fall victim decides he doesnt want or need restraint, he sets himself up for injury. When he disobeys orders and/or doctors instruction and gets hurt it is totally his fault, not that of the hospital staff.
The Palo Alto VA has trouble hiring doctors because they cant afford to buy a house in Palo Alto. My VA doctor told me there is a major shortage of VA doctors in the whole Palo Alto VA System (Livermore, Modesto and other clinics) and the present fix is to try to hire as many temporary doctors as possible.
The issue here is the attempt to file a legal claim when it is not justified. Ambulance chasing attorneys and money chasing people are usually behind these frivolous lawsuits. Its one of the reasons for the high cost of malpractice insurance. If a patient has the wrong leg or arm amputated this would create definite legal grounds for a lawsuits.
The VA is not a cash cow and should not be seen as one.

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