Wrongful Death Suit Filed, Using 'Outrage' Claim

Apr 27, 2016

When 31-year-old Shannon Lawley died at a Brevard County hospital four years ago, her parents wanted to file a medical malpractice suit. But only spouses or children can sue under Florida law, and Shannon Lawley had neither.

Michael Lawley felt the law was so unfair that he protested to the legislature the year after she died, as Health News Florida reported at the time. 

Now, her parents, Michael and Patricia Lawley, hope they have found a way around the law. They have filed suit under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, citing the hospital’s “outrageous behavior.” Their “tort of outrage” was filed April 21 in Brevard Circuit Court against Wuesthoff Hospital in Rockledge, its former parent corporation, Health Management Associates; HMA’s former president Gary Newsome, and several physician groups.

HMA pressured its hospitals to keep beds filled by imposing admission quotas on emergency physicians, the suit says. Doctors admitted some patients who didn’t need it and failed to transfer patients to other hospitals even in conditions of overcrowding, which led to Shannon Lawley’s death, according to the filing.

“The conduct of HMA was intentional, reckless and outrageous,” the lawsuit said. “It was designed to place corporate profits ahead of patient care and wellbeing.”

The complaint says that Shannon, a 31-year-old chemist, was forced to wait for more than 10 hours in the emergency room, even though she was very ill, because there were no intensive care unit beds free. By the time she was moved to the ICU, the complaint says, she had fallen into a diabetic coma and had to be placed on artificial life support.

She died four weeks later. The hospital bill was nearly $370,000, according to the complaint.

HMA, which had 70 hospitals in 15 states, was the subject of an investigation by CBS’ “60 Minutes.” On the program, which aired in December 2012, several physicians said they had to meet quotas for admissions, regardless of medical necessity. 

In 2014, Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tenn., bought HMA. Last year, 16 of the former HMA hospitals agreed to pay more the federal goverment than $15 million to settle accusations of overbilling Medicare.  

Michael Lawley, a CPA, and his attorneys are scheduled to speak to reporters this afternoon in Melbourne, according to a news release. It says the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal investigation of HMA and its former top executives is continuing.

The lead attorney for the Lawleys is Ted Babbitt of West Palm Beach, with co-counsel Sammy Cacciatore of Melbourne.

(Update: A spokeswoman for Community Health Systems, which now owns the former HMA hospitals, said it is not the company's policy to comment on litigation. She noted that Wuesthoff Hospital was not part of  CHS at the time of the patient's death.)

Carol Gentry is a special correspondent with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.