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A Michigan jury has awarded the family of an obese man $5 million because he was denied treatment at a hospital after a car crash. The day before that verdict, an Illinois family accepted a $12.5 million settlement from a hospital that refused to treat their son, a gunshot victim. The two actions highlight a dilemma that hospitals face when deciding when to admit patients and when to send them to what they deem to be more appropriate facilities. The Michigan plaintiff’s attorney, Geoffrey Fieger of Southfield, Mich.’s Fieger, Fieger, Kenney & Johnson, said that hospitals “are feeling the pinch of the reduced reimbursements by Medicare and Medicaid. “They’re required by law to treat everyone, but that doesn’t mean they’re above violating the law, as this case shows,” Fieger said, referring to the Michigan case. “Hospitals have lived with this since the middle ’80s,” said Maureen Mudron, Washington counsel for the American Hospital Association. “What hospitals are really focused on is responding to the patients as they are coming to the emergency department to identify whether they have an emergency situation and respond to that emergency.” She called the Michigan case exceptional. “If you look at the number of people who are served by hospitals, the number who are treated at emergency rooms, the number of lawsuits is just going to pale in comparison,” she said. On May 1, the Michigan jury ordered Botsford General Hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich., to pay a family $5 million for the death of a 500-pound man who died en route to a second hospital. Snider-Smith v. Botsford General Hospital, No. 0071459 (E.D. Mich). The award stems from a 1998 accident in which 33-year-old Kelly Snider-Smith’s Chevrolet Suburban was struck by another vehicle. Taken to Botsford with a broken knee, he was told he could not be treated there because he was too heavy for the operating table. Fieger said Snider-Smith was not stabilized before being placed in the ambulance, and died en route to a second hospital. “He bled to death within five minutes of being put into the ambulance,” Fieger said. Snider-Smith’s family sued the hospital under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which prohibits the transfer of patients in an unstable condition. Botsford Hospital “violated the clear wording of the law,” Fieger alleged. Botsford Hospital spokeswoman Nancy Dumas said the hospital is appealing and denies that it failed to properly treat Smith. “To say that he was dumped because he was too fat is such a distortion of the facts and it’s such an unfair commentary on the fine work that our emergency crew does,” Dumas said. “Botsford General Hospital just does not dump patients. This patient needed to be transferred in order to get treatment.” According to Dumas, Snider-Smith’s leg injury was so severe — bone had broken through the skin — that he required a CAT scan and surgery. He was too large for the operating tables and scanning device, so he was transferred to Ann Arbor, Mich., about 30 minutes away, she said. “We found that the patient was medically stable and [he] was placed in an ambulance,” Dumas said. According to Dumas, state and federal health agencies reviewed Botsford’s actions and found that the patient was stable when he was transferred, and that that there was no violation of the law. Those findings were not entered as evidence in the trial because Fieger successfully objected to their admissibility. Two days before the Michigan jury verdict came down, an Illinois family accepted a $12.5 million settlement from a hospital that refused to treat their son. Sercye-McCollum v. Ravenswood Hospital Medical Center, No. 98 L14847 (Cook Co., Ill., Cir. Ct.). Christopher Sercye, 15, was shot on May 16, 1998, after playing basketball behind Ravenswood Hospital Medical Center in Chicago. According to the victim’s lawyer, Joseph Power, a friend ran to the hospital to get help, but staff members said hospital policy prohibited treating anyone outside hospital grounds. Power said that police officers eventually wheeled the 15-year-old into the emergency room, but he died about an hour later. Powers of Rogers & Smith in Chicago said his strongest legal arguments were proving that the boy was, in fact, on hospital grounds, and that there was a hospital policy that required staff to respond to people injured on their property. Ravenswood’s lawyers, William Johnson and Matthew Johnson of Johnson & Bell in Chicago, could not be reached for comment.

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