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Hospital sued over ER paperwork delay

Robert Steiner came into a Pinellas emergency room one night complaining of chest pains, feeling as though he was about to pass out. He was handed a form to fill out.

Since he’s legally blind, the Clearwater man had to ask for help. Before he could complete the form, he fainted, breaking his elbow as he hit the floor, court documents say.

He has sued Largo Medical Center in Indian Rocks Beach, saying ER staffers should have whisked him into treatment.

“A person with those symptoms needs to see a doctor right away," said Steiner’s attorney, Andy Steingold. "The paperwork can always wait until later. The patient can’t.”

Lawsuits alleging emergency-room malpractice due to delays in getting to treatment are rare, said David Spicer, a Palm Beach Gardens attorney who represents both plaintiffs and defendants in malpractice and other health care cases..

That’s not because dangerous delays in the emergency room are rare; one study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine reported that only 27 percent of acutely ill patients are brought to treatment rooms right away.

But Florida limits damages for most suits against emergency rooms to $150,000, Spicer said. For most attorneys and plaintiffs, that’s not enough to make filing a malpractice suit worthwhile because such cases are costly to mount.

The form Steiner was required to complete in October 2008 wasn’t lengthy, just a single sheet of paper. But the ER staff is supposed to triage patients – determine which ones need immediate medical attention and postpone the paperwork.

Steingold said it should have been obvious that Steiner’s case couldn’t wait, once the staff heard that he had chest pains, a history of pulmonary embolism and wooziness.

Steiner’s poor eyesight meant additional delay in filling out the form. The staff suggested that he ask his mother, who had driven him there, to help. But she’s deaf and couldn’t speed the process much, Steingold said.

The attorney said Steiner wasn’t even offered a chair, despite repeatedly saying he felt that he might pass out at any moment. Before he could finish the form, Steiner collapsed.

He spent five days in the hospital. Doctors determined that the heart problem that caused his chest pains was not severe.

Steiner is in his late 50s and is in generally good health, but he still doesn’t have full use of his arm, according to the lawsuit.

Adam Levine, who is both an attorney and physician, says a patient in Steiner’s condition should be treated right away. “If someone is complaining of chest pains you don’t wait. You get him in there immediately.”

Levine said Steingold’s law firm, Maney & Gordon, is a prominent health-care practice and wouldn’t take a case that clearly had no merit. “They’re not bottom-feeders,” Levine said.

The hospital did not return a call asking for comment.

--Marty Clear is an independent journalist in Tampa. Questions or comments may be sent to Carol Gentry, Editor; her phone is 727-410-3266.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.