Malpractice lawsuit to weigh life and death

Daughter says mother fought to get out of body bag

Catherine Leona Delo

PORT ANGELES — A judge has dismissed some but not all claims in a civil medical malpractice claim over the February 2017 death of a 99-year-old woman who petitioners say was declared dead at Olympic Medical Center before she died.

The ruling by Clallam County Superior Court Judge Brent Basden seemed to guarantee that, if the case is not settled out of court, attorneys at trial will argue about the line between life and death.

“Expert testimony is necessary to establish the standard of care on declaring death,” Basden ruled.

In moving forward with the case, Basden has ordered attorneys for OMC and Evelyn Galland of Port Angeles, the daughter of the late Catherine Leona Delo, to present an agreed-upon list of witnesses and exhibits Monday in preparation for the May 17 civil trial.

His order last week came in the wake of his March 12 ruling that rejected OMC’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss all of Galland’s claims.

Basden threw out the corporate negligence claim against OMC, dismissed a wrongful death claim against OMC nurse Karen Tyler, and dismissed negligent infliction of emotional distress claims against OMC and hospital Dr. Yiragalem Tiruneh and nine other unnamed defendants.

Basden also dismissed failure-to-document and wrongful death claims against Tyler.

But Basden determined that too much key information was unknown surrounding the circumstances of Delo’s death on the day she was declared deceased for him to dismiss the wrongful death claim against Tiruneh, the professional negligent claim against Tyler, and Galland’s claim for pain and suffering.

“There is a genuine issue of material fact in dispute on whether Ms. Delo was deceased when her death was declared on Feb. 15, 2017,” Basden ruled.

“There is a genuine issue of material fact in dispute as to whether Ms. Delo experienced pain and suffering on Feb. 15, 2017.”

Basden also said further exploration was needed on whether OMC followed the “standard of care” while treating Delo, which the hospital says it did, and which Galland says it did not.

Galland’s second amended complaint for damages says OMC and its staff did not follow the hospital’s procedure for confirming that a person had died.

Galland said her mother’s bloodstained sheets and apparently broken nose, which the hospital acknowledges were discovered two days later on Feb. 17 at the funeral home, indicated she was alive up to two days after being declared dead.

“Death is the cessation of life; the ceasing to exist; defined by physicians as a total stoppage of the circulation of the blood and a cessation of the animal and vital functions consequent thereon, such as respiration, pulsation, etc.,” the complaint said, quoting Black’s Law Dictionary.

Galland, who was her mother’s primary caregiver, said in opposition to the motion for summary judgment that she brought her to the hospital in early February because Delo was experiencing medical and interaction difficulties and asked that she be put on do-not-resuscitate status.

Galland said Delo was denied hydration fluids and oxygen and was put on increasingly larger doses of morphine.

“It is my belief that defendant took her off fluids and oxygen to speed her death,” Galland said in her Dec. 20 declaration.

“That is a horrific thing to do. I have continuing nightmares about her treatment at OMC and both myself and my mother being trapped.

“When I learned that the mortuary found my mother blood-soaked, and with a broken nose, I was shocked and worried that my mother had suffered what would be unimagined fear and pain.

“Dead people don’t bleed in quantity,” she said.

“I have had not only the nightmares [described] above but have been embroiled with anxiety thinking about how my mother suffered as a result of her being declared dead when she was still alive.”

She said in her amended complaint that OMC did not follow its a policy of two nurses verifying a patient has died.

“Agents of Olympic Medical Center negligently handled Ms. Delos, breaking her nose and damaging her eye socket,” according to the complaint.

“Ms. Delo was trapped in the body bag long enough for her to push and hit the bag in an attempt to get out, thus bruising her hand.”

According to Delo’s death certificate, she died at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15 of cardiorespiratory failure, severe sepsis, pneumonia and a urinary tract infection.

Tyler, Delo’s nurse, pronounced her dead at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 2017, according to OMC’s motion for summary judgment.

While the presumably deceased Port Angeles resident and former health care worker was being prepared for transfer to the hospital morgue and then to Harper Ridgeview Funeral Chapel in Port Angeles, there was no indication that she was alive, nor was their blood on the sheet in which her body was wrapped, according to the motion for summary judgment.

There is no description of the body being put into a plastic body bag.

Two days later, on Feb . 17, a mortuary worker opened the plastic body bag containing Delo’s remains to begin the embalming process, according to the motion.

She found the inside sheet “very saturated with blood” and that Delo’s eye was bruised and her nose was apparently broken, and called the Port Angeles Police Department.

There is no mention of the bruised hands described by Delo’s daughter.

In its answer to Galland’s amended complaint, the hospital said it has a policy for determining patient deaths and denied it was not followed.

No explanation of Delo’s injuries was provided.

“Defendants deny any allegations of liability or causality,” it said.

In the motion for summary judgment, OMC argues that a forensic pathologist who examined Delo determined she died from arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease and classified her death as natural.

“He also found that no traumatic injury including the injury to her nose contributed to her death and that her nose and eye injuries could have occurred postmortem,” according to the motion for summary judgment.

According to the hospital’s motion, Delo was brought to the hospital Feb. 5, 2017. By Feb. 9, Delo was “largely unresponsive,” it said.

On Feb. 11 she was given morphine after appearing to be in pain and lorazepam after she began yelling and flailing her arms, it said.

She was put under Tiruneh’s care Feb. 13.

“On Feb. 15, after several days of being neurologically unresponsive, Ms. Delo succumbed to her long list of health problems and was pronounced dead at 16:30 by Karen S. Tyler, R.N.”

Galland is seeking unspecified damages for funeral expenses, lost income, the cost of the lawsuit and fees as allowed by law.

“OMC has full coverage under its liability policy and the insurance company is covering all expenses,” hospital spokeswoman Bobby Beeman said in a Jan. 6 email.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected]

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