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Hospital CEO pounded over generators used during Katrina

By Alejandro de los Rios | May 13, 2010

Di Leo

NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) - A lawsuit against a New Orleans East hospital that didn't evacuate after 2005's Hurricane Katrina and then lost power after flooding entered its second day of trial Tuesday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.

Presided over by Judge Paulette Irons, the suit involves Methodist Hospital, which is accused of being negligent in the death of patient Lorraine Edwards for not properly preparing for hurricane situations.

Lamar Edwards sued on behalf of his mother and is represented by New Orleans attorneys Val Exnicios, Jennifer Eagan and James Carte and Lorraine Johnson is represented by Gregory Di Leo.

New Orleans attorneys David Bowling, Kathryn Wasik, Ernest Gieger Jr., and Leah Taschek are representing Methodist Hospital and its corporate owner, United Health Services (UHS).

The second day of testimony saw former Methodist Hospital CEO Larry Graham called to the witness stand by the plaintiffs attorneys. Di Leo questioned Graham in what turned out to be a combative testimony that saw Judge Irons call witness and counsel to order on several occasions.

"This is just arguing," she said at one point.

Di Leo put Graham under fire for his decision-making in the face of the upcoming hurricane. Graham was asked why he decided to go fishing just two days before the storm made landfall and why he didn't decide to evacuate the hospital.

Graham responded at one point that he was checking the storms progress on television before fishing on nearby Lake Ponchartrain but didn't see the forecast issued early Saturday morning that put New Orleans directly in the path of Hurricane Katrina.

"What station were you watching, sir? Nickelodeon?" Di Leo asked.

Graham testified that, though he didn't make a visit to the hospital until the day before the storm hit New Orleans, he was in constant contact with his staff to make sure their emergency plans were being followed. He also said he made the decision to not evacuate patients and instead "shelter in place" around midday on Saturday the 27th.

During questioning, Graham revealed that before the storm he was unaware that the hospitals' air conditioning system was not connected to the emergency power generator. He also said the only hospitals he called to help evacuate his patients were in the storms "cone of probability" and thus, they were unwilling to take on more people. Graham stood by his decision to "sit and shelter" patients and to rely on the hospital's emergency power system, saying, "I didn't know it would fail."

Graham was followed by Frank Painter, introduced by the plaintiffs as an expert witness in the fields of biomechanical engineering and clinical engineering. Painter - hired by the plaintiffs to research the case at a rate of $250 an hour and to testify for $375 an hour - made the conclusion that Methodist Hospitals' emergency power system was critically flawed.

"It was an obvious defect that could have been solved for a very little sum of money," he said.

Painter said the defect lay in that the emergency generator, located on the roof of hospital, which was fueled by a pump on the ground that was susceptible to flooding. Painter offered up alternative plans to a generator he said would have withstood "any flooding" by placing the fuel pump some 10 to 15 feet higher than where it stood before Katrina.

Bowling countered by asking if the fuel pump used at Methodist Hospital had ever failed before, to which Painter replied, "No." Bowling also asked Graham if he was aware, from his research, if Graham knew about any problems with the generators.

"He didn't want to know," Painter said.

Bowling challenged Painter's response, to which witness said "he's the CEO" and "if he was interested he could have simply asked" his on-site engineer. Painter's nearly four-hour long testimony came to an end when Judge Irons called a recess and for the case to proceed at 9 a.m. on May 12.

"I think we got enough expert testimony today," she said to laughter in the courtroom.

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