Berkeley hospital loses case against 2 women who witnessed relative choking to death

Ariel Hayat/File

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A state appeals court upheld $375,000 in damages against a Berkeley hospital in a suit brought by two women who witnessed their relative choking to death while waiting for the doctor to arrive postsurgery.

In a 2-1 decision Feb. 23, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said Phyllis Keys, the patient’s daughter, and Erma Smith, the patient’s sister, had presented evidence that they knew the patient was suffering from a lack of proper care and were emotionally traumatized.

Plaintiffs who seek damages for trauma experienced while watching a close relative injured or killed must prove they were aware of the injury and its cause.

In September 2008, the patient, Madeline Knox, underwent thyroid surgery and was transported to a medical-surgical unit. Once there, Keys and Smith said, the hospital staff at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center appeared to lack a sense of urgency after a nurse noticed Knox’s breathing was “noisy,” indicating a possible obstruction in her upper airway.

A nurse, upon noticing Knox’s breathing problems, called in the rapid assessment team, composed of a respiratory therapist and a nurse from the intensive care unit, at 6:46 p.m.

While there, the respiratory therapist suctioned Knox’s mouth and left before the surgeon arrived shortly after 7 p.m. The surgeon then suctioned Knox’s mouth and nose, and as the surgeon was trying to relieve pressure by removing the sutures on her incision, Knox stopped breathing, the court said.

Knox suffered a permanent brain injury as a result of her blocked airway and was transferred to the ICU. She died nine days later, after life support was withdrawn.

A jury initially awarded Keys and Smith $1 million for wrongful death, which was reduced to $250,000 under a state law that limits damages for medical malpractice. The hospital then appealed the jury decision that awarded $350,000 to Smith and Keys for negligent infliction of medical distress.

Bo Kovitz is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.