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According to a Missouri Supreme Court ruling, it is too late for families to seek damages against a Missouri hospital which allegedly concealed suspicions that an employee had caused a rash of patient deaths in 2002. Citing the state’s three-year statute of limitations on wrongful-death suits, the court’s 4-3 decision shields Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe from civil liability blocking one avenue to settling a 13-year-old mystery.

Trial judges originally ruled for the hospital, but an appeals court panel found that because of the alleged concealment, the statute of limitations did not begin to run until later. Instead of accepting responsibility, the hospital claimed it is immune from liability under the statute of limitations clause and appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court.

David Gann, who filed a wrongful-death suit in 2010, said he didn’t file a case sooner because hospital officials had insisted that the death of his father was due to natural causes. Eight years later he learned there were suspicions that patients had been killed. “How would you come up with wrongful-death suit if you didn’t know anything was wrong?” he asked.

Civil suits contend that Gann’s father and eight others died under suspicious circumstances at Hedrick Medical Center between February 3 and May 18, 2002, each of which apparently involved a single respiratory therapist employed at the hospital. The suits allege that she intentionally poisoned patients with injections of insulin, a paralyzing drug called succinylcholine or some other substance, causing them to “code blue,” and in some cases die. The lawsuits also claim that hospital administration concealed her actions. Specifically, the lawsuits contend that hospital executives told employees to bury information, avoided autopsies, told employees to tell victims’ families that the causes of death were natural, shut down the hospital’s peer-review committee, and failed to investigate the respiratory therapist when local law enforcement requested it.

The respiratory therapist was suspended and then fired from Hedrick Medical Center in May 2002, two days after the last of the nine deaths occurred. No other suspicious deaths were reported at the hospital following her departure. To date, she has not been charged with a crime and was not named as a defendant in any of the civil lawsuits.

Medical malpractice victims should not lose their rights to bring a lawsuit before they are even aware that they have been harmed. The laws in most states recognize that and have adopted a “discovery rule.” Under the “discovery rule” the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a person discovers he or she has been harmed. For example, in California the three-year time period may be extended if there is fraud or intentional concealment by the defendant. Although Missouri has a “date of discovery” statute, it does not apply in wrongful death cases, and the Supreme Court said it is up to the legislature to create the exception, not the courts.

Without such laws, what will keep health care providers from concealing facts for their own financial gain? Hedrick Medical Center should not have the benefit of the statute of limitations if it wrongfully withheld critical evidence that would have allowed families to file a lawsuit within the statute period, seek justice, and hold the wrongdoer accountable.

Mike Manners, an attorney for the families suing the hospital, said he planned to request that the high court rehear his case on grounds that “a maxim of common law is that nobody is entitled to benefit from their own wrongdoing.” It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

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