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Nurse's claim of hospital's malicious intent in injury by patient dismissed


The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has dismissed a deliberate intent suit a nurse filed against her employer after she was allegedly injured by a patient.

Lisa Clark, an intensive care unit nurse for St. Mary’s Medical Center Inc. in Huntington, West Virginia, said she was injured by a patient who was assigned to her on Aug. 5, 2011, court records show.

The patient, who arrived in the intensive care unit the day prior, had Rocky Mountain Fever, causing “him to suffer confusion and an altered mental state,” according to records. But other nurses and doctors testified that the patient wasn’t violent and hadn’t attacked anyone with the exception of the alleged incident with Ms. Clark.

Ms. Clark said she asked not to be assigned to the 6-foot-3, 350-pound patient since she is 5-foot-4, but her request was denied by St. Mary’s, records show.

At the start of Ms. Clark’s shift on Aug. 5, 2011, the patient suffered confusion and urinated on the floor, which is something he had done before, according to records. The male nurse who cared for the patient during the earlier shift held the patient’s arm and began directing him back to bed.

According to records, Ms. Clark said the patient “suddenly used both of his arms to put her in a headlock and violently twisted her neck and shoulders.”

However, the male nurse testified that he was holding the patient’s arm, so it would have been “impossible for the patient to use both of his arms” to put Ms. Clark in a headlock and twist her neck, records show. And another nurse testified that the patient pulled his arm away from Ms. Clark, causing her to scream and smack the patient in the head.

As a result of the incident, Ms. Clark said she suffered thoracic outlet syndrome, which causes her to have pain, numbness, and tingling, records show. She said she requires surgery and that her injuries have left her disabled and unable to work full time.

According to records, the Cabell County, West Virginia Circuit Court found that thoracic outlet syndrome is “a controversial and obscure medical condition,” with symptoms that can be “mimicked by numerous other conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Clark’s medical records showed that she complained of similar symptoms dating back to 1994, and that she underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2004, as well as carpal and cubital tunnel surgery in 2009. Ms. Clark had also been diagnosed with Reynaud’s disease in her hands and feet, and treated for depression and migraine headaches prior to 2011. Ms. Clark also admitted to suffering injuries from horseback riding and snowboarding accidents.

The surgeon who diagnosed Ms. Clark with thoracic outlet syndrome eventually said he couldn’t tell if her injuries occurred in 2007, 2008, or 2011, according to records.

On April 3, 2014, the Cabell County court granted St. Mary’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that Ms. Clark “failed to establish that the patient, who despite being anxious and confused, constituted ‘a specific unsafe working condition … in the workplace which presented a high degree of risk and a strong probability of serious injury or death.’ ”

On appeal, Ms. Clark argued that St. Mary’s “intentionally exposed” her to the unsafe working conditions, among other things.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Friday affirmed the circuit court’s ruling, saying deliberate intent lawsuit plaintiffs must prove at least one of five elements included in state law to proceed with such a claim.

Elements include “a specific unsafe working condition existed in the workplace which presented a high degree of risk and a strong probability of serious injury or death,” and that “the specific unsafe working condition was a violation of a state or federal safety statute, rule or regulation, whether cited or not, or of a commonly accepted and well-known safety standard.”

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