jury box Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM

A Delaware County jury awarded $3 million to the estate of an 84-year-old man who died after falling and hitting his head while he was a patient at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital.

On April 6, after four days of trial in Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge G. Michael Green’s courtroom and about four hours of deliberations, a 12-member jury rendered the verdict by a 10-2 vote.

According to the verdict slip, the award comprised $2.88 million under the Wrongful Death Act and $114,448 under the Survival Act.

According to the plaintiffs’ pretrial memorandum, plaintiff James DeGeorge Sr. had been labeled a fall risk by staff at Mercy Fitzgerald, where he was recuperating from a procedure in which he had a pacemaker inserted.

The plaintiffs alleged in their memorandum that DeGeorge had been given a bed alarm to prevent him from trying to get out of bed on his own, which he had a history of doing.

Shortly before midnight on Jan. 2, 2015, a nurse working the night shift gave DeGeorge an Ambien, which the plaintiffs said in their memorandum is known to inhibit patients’ motor function and make them drowsy and forgetful. At 1:30 a.m., the plaintiffs alleged, the nurse placed DeGeorge in a chair that was not equipped with an alarm or any other fall precautions.

DeGeorge, who had already exhibited signs of confusion leading up to that night shift, tried to get out of the chair without assistance, likely in attempt to get back into bed or to use the urinal that had been placed on a side table, the plaintiffs alleged in their memorandum. He fell and hit his head, resulting in a subdural hematoma and a laceration to his ear that required stitches.

He was required to undergo surgery to evacuate the hematoma, according to the plaintiffs memorandum, but subsequently “suffered conscious pain and suffering for weeks” before ultimately being transferred to hospice, where he died Jan. 22, 2015.

The plaintiffs alleged Mercy Hospital was negligent for placing DeGeorge in a chair without first putting fall precautions in place, including failing to provide DeGeorge with a chair alarm. They also alleged that subdural hematoma was ultimately what caused his death.

The defense, however, argued in its own memorandum that “chair alarms do not reduce the risk of falls.”

“Falls in older patients are common and not all falls can be prevented,” the defense memorandum said. ”Some of these falls result in serious injuries. It is not appropriate (nor recommended) to unnecessarily restrict the movements or free choice of older patients who demonstrate the ability to understand instructions and the need to ask for assistance (as was the case with Mr. DeGeorge).”

The defense also argued in its memorandum that the subdural hematoma was only one of several factors that ultimately led to DeGeorge’s death, along with his age and “multiple chronic medical problems.”

The jury sided with plaintiffs, however, finding that Mercy Hospital was negligent and that its negligence was a factual cause of harm to DeGeorge.

Laura Laughlin.

Counsel for DeGeorge’s estate, Laura Laughlin of Freiwald Law in Philadelphia, said that while the defense had argued that chair alarms were ineffective in preventing falls, one of the defense experts admitted during testimony to utilizing chair alarms in their own practice.

“That’s really what kind of swayed the jury,” Laughlin said, adding that the case also dealt with a medical negligence issue that was easy for jurors to understand.

“I think the jury did the right thing here,” she said. “His fall was preventable.”

Counsel for Mercy Hospital, J. Michael Doyle of Post & Schell in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the case.