Family Charges Physician With Neglect In Supervision Of Care

JULY 17, 2000 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 3

When a loved one is institutionalized, family members usually do not have the skills and information necessary to closely monitor the quality of care. They usually rely heavily on the advice of the patient’s physician to direct the course of treatment. In those cases where the physician becomes part of the problem, it may be extremely difficult for family members to respond.

Girtha Mack resided in the Covenant Care Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in California. Her attending physician, Dr. Lian Soung, supervised her medical care at Covenant. Ms. Mack’s children were actively involved in her care, and regularly checked with both the nursing home and Dr. Soung.

According to her children, Ms. Mack was left in a bedpan for 13 consecutive hours and developed untreatable Stage III bedsores. Dr. Soung and the nursing home allegedly concealed that fact from the children for weeks, and refused to permit them to inspect the bedsores until the nursing home ombudsman intervened on their behalf.

Dr. Soung opposed hospitalization for Ms. Mack, insisting that the care she was receiving at the nursing home was appropriate. Two months later, Ms. Mack’s condition worsened, and Dr. Soung abruptly abandoned her as a patient. He refused to respond to requests for hospitalization by the nursing home staff. Ms. Mack died a few days later.

California law, like that of Arizona and other states, provides special protection against abuse, neglect or abandonment of elderly or dependent adults. Ms. Mack’s children brought a lawsuit against Dr. Soung, alleging that he had abused and neglected Ms. Mack. They also charged Dr. Soung with intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family.

Dr. Soung persuaded the trial court to dismiss both complaints against him, and Ms. Mack’s children appealed. The California Court of Appeal agreed that the action for intentional infliction of emotional distress should be dismissed, but returned the case to the lower court for a trial on the neglect charge.

The court noted that the California law on abuse applies to “care custodians” and not physicians. The section of the law dealing with neglect, however, includes health care providers such as physicians.

By using the neglect statute, Ms. Mack’s family apparently hoped to accomplish two things. First, the action would not be governed by rules applied to medical malpractice lawsuits. Second, the possible recovery from Dr. Soung is larger because of the neglect statute’s enhanced penalty provisions. Now the Mack family will be able to pursue their litigation under that neglect statute. Mack v. Soung, May 17, 2000.

Arizona’s law is similar to that in California, but would be even easier for Ms. Mack’s children to apply. It covers “any person who has been employed to provide care” to a “vulnerable” adult. The language of the Arizona statute is unusually broad in a number of ways, including the definition of a “vulnerable” adult (“an individual who is eighteen years of age or older who is unable to protect himself from abuse, neglect or exploitation by others because of a physical or mental impairment”). Like California’s law, the Arizona statute provides for the possibility of punitive damages.

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