New suits filed over pain meds given to near-death patients

Posted at 8:48 AM, Jan 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-17 08:48:22-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio man said Wednesday he was stunned to learn of allegations that his wife's hospital death last year was caused by a doctor's order for a fatal dose of pain medication.

David Austin said he called an ambulance in September after his wife, Bonnie Austin, had trouble breathing. A doctor told him she was brain dead after she suffered cardiac arrest.

Austin felt "like somebody kicked me in the chest" when he was told this month of the alleged circumstances of the death of his wife of 36 years.

At least three wrongful death lawsuits have now been filed against Dr. William Husel, the Columbus-area Mount Carmel Health System, and nurses and pharmacists employed by the system.

The lawsuits accused the doctor of ordering that near-death hospital patients get potentially fatal doses of pain medicine without their families' knowledge.

Mount Carmel announced this week that the intensive care doctor ordered pain medicine for at least 27 patients in dosages significantly bigger than necessary to provide comfort for them after their families asked that lifesaving measures be stopped.

Mount Carmel publicly apologized and said it has fired Husel, reported findings of its internal investigation to authorities and removed 20 employees from patient care pending further review.

Attorney James McGovern confirmed his firm is representing Husel, but he said both the firm and Husel had no comment on the allegations.

The announcement involving patients from the past few years raised questions about whether drugs were used to hasten deaths intentionally and possibly illegally.

A lawsuit filed by David Austin on Tuesday alleges his wife, 64, was killed negligently or intentionally in September when she was given an outsize dose of the painkiller fentanyl and a powerful sedative ordered by a doctor who said she was brain-dead.

Austin, a retired trucker in Columbus, said Wednesday he filed the lawsuit in the hopes nothing like this would happen again. He spoke emotionally of his late wife, a waitress, who he married in 1982 just three months after meeting her.

Austin, also 64, said he's struggling to understand the doctor's alleged actions.

"I have no idea why anybody would do that," he said.

Medical records indicate the drugs were administered before her husband decided to withdraw life support, said attorney David Shroyer, who represents the family.

Their lawsuit was filed against Husel, the health system, a pharmacist who approved the drugs and a nurse who administered them.

The lawsuit, which seeks financial damages, is aimed at determining what happened and why, and ensuring it's not repeated, Shroyer said.

Mount Carmel said it wants that, too.

"We're doing everything to understand how this happened and what we need to do to ensure that it never happens again," system President and CEO Ed Lamb said in a video statement .

A third lawsuit alleges that 44-year-old Troy Allison died on July 15 after receiving "a grossly inappropriate dose" of pain medicine, according to attorney Craig Tuttle, who confirmed the Wednesday filing in Franklin County Court.

Allison went to the hospital July 14 with shortness of breath, believed to be related to sepsis, which then caused heart failure, Tuttle said. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition triggered by the body's response to an infection. The hospital told Allison's wife that he received a lethal dose of morphine, Tuttle said.

The Franklin County prosecutor said Mount Carmel has cooperated with an ongoing investigation.

Husel's work also is under internal review by the Cleveland Clinic, where he was a supervised resident from 2008 to 2013. The medical center said its preliminary review found his prescribing practices were "consistent with appropriate care."

Records show the State Medical Board in Ohio has never taken disciplinary action against Husel. It's unclear whether that board ever received a complaint or conducted an investigation about him, as such records are confidential and outcomes are public only if the board takes formal action.

Shroyer said he expects the case will prompt other hospitals to review their own procedures and safeguards.

"I think every hospital in the country is going to be saying, 'Could this happen at our hospital? And if it can, let's fix it,'" he said.