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.