It's been three years since Charles Hamilton died at the county's Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center after an unsupervised first-year surgical intern stuck a catheter into a vein in his chest and his heart went haywire.
As the Los Angeles County lawyers representing the hospital later would conclude, it was a high-risk medical procedure that Hamilton did not need. The 56-year-old Lucky Foods truck driver, who had undergone surgery after an automobile accident, was in good condition, the attorneys found, and had no need of the intravenous heart monitor the catheter was supposed to provide.
But intern Massoud Amini inserted the catheter anyway June 14, 1995, into a vein just under Hamilton's collarbone.
Immediately, the man's heartbeat became wildly erratic. A nurse sounded a "code blue" emergency. But for more than half an hour, as Hamilton's heart rate slowed to a stop, no staff doctors came to help the inexperienced Amini. Even the anesthesiologist, who was in charge of the post-anesthesia recovery room, failed to respond, according to hospital records obtained by The Times.
Hamilton's family sued, alleging that as a physician in training at the teaching hospital and trauma center, Amini was essentially practicing his surgical technique when he inserted the catheter. The suit alleged that Hamilton's death was caused not only by the intern's clear medical negligence, inadequate training and lax supervision, but also by the failure of properly trained doctors to respond to the crisis.
Ultimately, Hamilton's family agreed to settle their $1.1-million wrongful death lawsuit for $625,000. County lawyers recommended the settlement to avert a trial, conceding in a memo to the county Claims Board that "the immediate cause of [Hamilton's] death was attributed to an abnormal heart rate caused by the [catheter] procedure," which "was an unnecessary procedure."
That was in November.
Almost eight months later, Hamilton's survivors haven't seen a penny.
The reason: County regulations require that medical malpractice settlements involving doctors on the public payroll can't be approved by the Board of Supervisors until the hospital conducts a thorough review of the case. In this instance, the review was supposed to determine whether King/Drew needed to correct any problems that contributed to Hamilton's death. That formal study and the hospital's plan to correct any problems that are uncovered must be reviewed and approved by the Health Services Department, which oversees the county's six public hospitals.
Remedial Plan Delayed
But, according to the health department's chief medical trouble-shooter, King/Drew's plan to correct the problems that led to Hamilton's death--including lax oversight of surgical interns--wasn't completed until last month, nearly three years after the incident occurred. Dr. Donald C. Thomas III, associate health services director, said the hospital properly examined the case only after being ordered to do so by department officials, who were angry that they couldn't settle the case until a review was completed.
For Hamilton's family, however, justice delayed has been more than a bureaucratic inconvenience.
"I'm about to lose my home if I don't get that money," said his widow, Beverly, who can't make the payments on their Windsor Hills house without his $6,000-a-month income. "We were planning our retirements together, so we could travel around the country and visit our grandchildren."
"Now," she said, "I'm looking at what in the world I am going to do. My whole life, my whole future, has been crushed."
Last week, a judge told Hamilton's lawyers that he was so tired of the county's delays that he would take the unusual step of setting an Aug. 18 trial date in a matter that has long been settled.
"It is frustrating and I have often thought about throwing the court's power into the foray," Superior Court Judge Michael Rutberg said after criticizing the county for delays in the Hamilton case and others like it. "If you don't get your money [soon], you will get your trial in August. That's the best I can do."
On the very next day, the county Claims Board recommended approval of the settlement--even though its legal papers in the case didn't include the required corrective action plan. The Board of Supervisors is set to take up the matter July 7, which means that the Hamilton family could soon put the matter behind them.
"We're not an ambulance-chasing family," Beverly Hamilton said. "But it was an injustice, and we want to see some resolution so we can move past this. . . . I believe that [Amini] was practicing on my husband."
Hospital officials deny that assertion in legal motions, and the settlement of the lawsuit is drafted in such a way that the hospital is not blamed for Hamilton's death. King/Drew's administrator, Randall Foster, and other hospital officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment on the case or on the delays in formulating a remedial plan.