Hospital death prompts call for change

February 16, 2009 3:28:09 PM PST
A New Jersey father wants to sue a hospital for what he believes is the wrongful death of his daughter. But he's being told to not even bother. Under current law, the very young, the old and the disabled are of little value in the eyes of the court.

The father believes a lawsuit will make the hospital own up to and fix mistakes that he feels killed his daughter. But in a state with thousands of attorneys, he can't find one willing to take his case.

He's a father who wants to hold a hospital accountable for the death of his daughter, but in the eyes of New Jersey law, his daughter's life wasn't worth much.

Eyewitness News reporter Jim Hoffer: "How many attorneys did you go to?"
Negro: "Almost a dozen."
Hoffer: "What did they tell you?"
Negro: "They told me the same thing, the case was a worthless case because she had no monetary value to her life."

That's because his daughter, Marie Negro, was mildly mentally challenged, and in New Jersey, wrongful death lawsuits are based on the victim's income and earning potential. Her father believes St. Mary's Hospital misdiagnosed his daughter's severe stomach pain assessed by nurses as a 10 out of 10, yet no X-ray or CAT scan was given. She was sent home, where she died 36 hours later from a twisted bowel.

While the hospital insists it followed all appropriate protocol, the New Jersey Health Department cited St. Mary's Hospital with eight violations, including failure to give the patient "urgent triage" or care, instead making her wait an agonizing three hours and 59 minutes before being examined by a doctor.

"She got sick one time, and she died because of negligence, a simple test, why?" Negro said.

Current state law makes it useless for Negro to sue the hospital since he can only recover economic damages based on his disabled daughter's meager income and financial worth.The same is true for wrongful death cases involving children or the elderly.

"Under our current wrongful death law, no one is held responsible and accountable for the negligence which created the death," New Jersey State Lawmaker Sheila Oliver said.

Oliver is fighting to change that. She's sponsoring a bill that would allow families in a wrongful death suit to recover losses based on ''mental anguish and emotional pain," not just the monetary worth of a loved one.

"There is something inherently wrong with placing a higher value on the life of someone based on their wealth and devaluing the life of another individual because they are poor or do not have as much as a wealthier individual, and that's what happens under New Jersey's law," she said.

Her new bill almost became law last year, when both houses of the General Assembly passed it. Governor Jon Corzine refused to sign the bill, concerned it would drive up liability insurance costs and property taxes.

"It hurts," Negro said. "You're telling me my daughter's life is not worth anything, she has no value to it."

The hospital says most of the violations were unrelated to Marie Negro's case. All of them, it says, have been corrected.