The family of a 61-year-old man who died after rolling off a hospital table has been awarded $225,000 by the Ramsey County District Court after a jury found the hospital negligent. The incident occurred on March 8, 2010, when St. Paul, Minn. resident Max DeVries was scheduled for a routine surgical procedure at HealthEast St. Joseph’s Hospital. According to the complaint, DeVries was sedated and not properly restrained on the surgical table, resulting in the fatal spill.

Given that DeVries weighed 330 pounds and stood 5 feet 5 inches, his size and the narrowness of the surgical table contributed to the fall, according to the family’s attorney. The case highlights the need for medical facilities and medical equipment manufacturers to respond to the needs of larger patients with equipment that can safely accommodate them.

  • Jury finds hospital negligent in the death of a patient after fall
  • Court puts the burden on the hospital to dispute negligence
  • Medical facilities must adapt to accommodate larger patients
Res Ipsa Loquitor

Unlike most cases of medical malpractice where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to show that the defendant breached its duty of care, the DeVries case was different. The lawsuit met the elements of a legal doctrine known as res ipsa loquitor, which means that the defense had the burden to prove they were not negligent.

“You have a sedated person not capable of voluntary or involuntary movements,” Hajek says. “They fall off a procedure table, and the court says these things don’t happen in the absence of negligence. If the hospital could prove something was wrong with the table or that the strap failed, that would be one thing. But that wasn’t the argument of the defense.”

Instead, St. Joseph’s opted to argue that DeVries’ injuries from the fall did not contribute to his death. The hospital called three stroke experts to testify at the trial.

“None of them had any background in trauma care,” Hajek says. “There was a medical report issued that said Mr. DeVries had maceration, and the treating doctor [who testified] did not know what the term meant. So the jury rejected their experts’ testimony because none of them were trauma people.”

Despite the jury’s finding of negligence on the part of St. Joseph’s, the hospital continues to deny wrongdoing, much to the chagrin of DeVries’ surviving family members. In a statement, hospital CEO Sara Criger said: “The fact that there was a fall from a procedure table is a troubling event and we are sorry the fall occurred. However, despite the jury verdict, the medical evidence definitively proved there was no relationship between the fall and the patient’s later stroke or his death.”

A Growing Problem

The DeVries case highlights a trend that may result in an increased number of similar claims. The piece of equipment that DeVries was placed on was not equipped to properly support someone of his size. As the frequency of obesity rises, resulting in a myriad of health problems such as stroke, there will be an increase in obese patients. And this, says Hajek, is a problem that the health care community needs to address.

“This is now affecting all of the medical care,” Hajek says. “One of the risk factors with stroke is heavyweight, so it is not uncommon that you will be treating overweight people on a narrow space. If you are lying on a table that is wider than your girth, you can’t fall off.”

Hajek recommends that the medical community look into adopting a new regiment, one that will accommodate patients of all sizes for all types of procedures.

“It’s a systemic problem in nursing facilities, hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other medical facilities,” Hajek says. “Hospitals are starting to adapt, but it can be costly.”

By: Keith Ecker

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