Will The Hospital Be Sued For Patient Dumping Under EMTALA Law?

Federal and Florida laws require hospitals to treat patients who arrive with emergency medical conditions. Sadly, these laws did not prevent middle-aged woman Barbara Dawson from becoming the next victim of medical malpractice, and possibly racial and economic discrimination by the very last hospital where she sought help.

18 minutes: that’s the amount of time that Barbara Dawson, a 57-year-old with a history of poor health due to breathing issues, lay on the ground outside a police cruiser, while officers tried to force her out of the emergency department of a Calhoun County, Florida hospital.

7 hours, 56 minutes: that’s the amount of time between Dawson’s initial admission to the emergency room of the hospital and her death.

Here’s what we know about the night of December 20, 2015: at approximately 10:30 pm, Barbara Dawson arrived at Calhoun Liberty Hospital’s emergency room in Blountstown, FL. After keeping her in the emergency department for a few hours, the hospital staff decided she was cleared to leave. So they discharged her and insisted that she leave the hospital. Dawson knew there was something wrong and asked to stay at the hospital. The nursing staff reportedly refused, suggesting that Dawson was “causing a disturbance in the hospital with her language and the volume of her voice,” according to Blountstown Police Chief Mark Mallory.

Hospital staff then summoned the police, who attempted to escort Dawson to their car–”kind of pushing her along,” as one police officer said–in violation of trespassing law after the hospital staff demanded that she exit hospital premises. Dawson begged for her oxygen tank, and collapsed in the parking lot. She was then taken back into the hospital; two hours later, Dawson was dead. (Part of Dawson’s conversation with authorities was recorded and can be heard here.) Soon after the incident, hospital officials placed three employees on leave, citing a “lack of compassion” in the handling of her case.

By federal law, hospital staff was required to treat Dawson and any other patient with an emergency medical condition, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) was designed to prevent private hospitals from dumping under- or uninsured patients on public ones. The law was passed in 1986 in response to hospitals “dumping patients,” after determining that they were not financially attractive due to their insurance status.  Florida then passed its own “anti-dumping” statute, which also makes such hospital practices illegal.

While the hospital claims that Dawson was initially treated, as EMTALA regulations require, the question remains whether the hospital failed to recognize her emergency condition, or if they did, whether they violated the Anti-Dumping laws by sending her home without giving her proper treatment.   The hospital staff may have also engaged in medical malpractice by misdiagnosing her, releasing her too soon, or ignoring her complaints.

In the case of Dawson, answers are hopefully forthcoming. Her autopsy showed that she was killed by a blood clot in her lung that went untreated before she was trespassed by the hospital. Calhoun Liberty, the Blountstown Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration are all independently investigating; Dawson’s family will file suit against the hospital for negligence, with EMTALA laws possibly coming into play. As the American College of Emergency Physicians so aptly says in its discussion of EMTALA, “everyone is only one step away from a medical emergency.”  Sadly for Dawson, she was only steps away from a hospital that didn’t save her life.

Have you or a loved one been a victim of hospital negligence or mistreatment? Orlando personal injury and medical malpractice attorney Jeff Badgley will personally review your case. Call (407) 781-0420 for a free, no-obligation consultation today.

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