Safety and OSHA News

Nurse’s family sues, says she was worked to death

The husband and children of a registered nurse who was killed in a car crash as she was returning home after work are suing the hospital, claiming she was worked to death.

On March 16, 2013, Elizabeth Jasper, 38, was killed when her car veered off the road, jumped an embankment and struck a tree. She may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Jasper had been an RN in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati since 2000.

In 2011, Mercy Hospital Partners of Southwest Ohio bought Jewish Hospital.

Jasper’s family has filed a lawsuit against the new owners, alleging that after the purchase, the RN’s actual working hours regularly and significantly exceeded her usual hours: three 12-hour shifts per week.

The lawsuit claims Jasper and nurses at the hospital were often required or asked to work through breaks, work extra shifts and stay late after their shift should have ended. The result: Nurses often worked while exhausted and hungry.

By March 2013, Jasper was one of only a handful of nurses qualified to work the hospital’s dialysis machines. Nurses say they were regularly called into work while off duty to run the machine and often had to tend to multiple dialysis patients at one time, leaving them to choose between taking bathroom breaks and leaving the patients unattended.

At the same time, Jasper was also forced to be a counselor for the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit which required her to teach on her regularly scheduled days off or after a regular shift ended.

Lawsuit: Hospital knew about problem

The lawsuit also alleges the hospital knew about the nurse staffing problem. It claims Jasper’s supervisor, Mary Alliston, notified Mercy of the dangers of the working conditions of nurses but the hospital ignored the warnings.

Specifically, the lawsuit claims Alliston expressed concerns to her superiors that Jasper was being “worked to death.”

Also according to the lawsuit, another manager seemed to send an apologetic message after Jasper’s death.

The Director of Nursing, Kathy Smith, called a meeting of the nurses at the hospital. Sandwiches were served, and Smith told the nurses she “was so sorry about the death of Beth” and “sorry that they had dropped the ball” because the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit had been short-staffed during the shift preceding Jasper’s death.

Jasper’s family is suing for wrongful death, intentional tort, loss of consortium and punitive damages. The lawsuit claims the hospital:

  • directly caused the death of Jasper by its wrongful acts
  • owed a duty to Jasper “to take reasonable precautions for her safety by abstaining from deliberate practices that placed her in a position of unjustifiably high risk”
  • breached its duty by causing Jasper to be exhausted
  • should have known car crashes would occur without the proper measures to prevent them
  • was warned of the danger and unjustifiable risk to the health and safety of its nursing staff posted by staffing shortages
  • had ample opportunity to address the staffing shortages
  • pressured nurses to work more hours and to forfeit their rest periods throughout their workdays
  • deliberately understaffed the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit
  • acted in a way that was “outrageous, wanton, reckless, reprehensible, egregious, malicious and aggravated.”

In summary, the lawsuit claims the hospital’s “policy of understaffing the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit and overworking its nurses in intentional disregard of the dangers posed to them is the direct and proximate cause of Ms. Jasper’s automobile crash, as well as the direct and proximate cause of Ms. Jasper’s death.”

There’s no word on how much compensation Jasper’s family seeks. The hospital expressed sympathy for the family, but declined to comment on pending litigation.

More of these suits on horizon?

Wrongful employee death litigation stemming from staffing issues is unusual.

But other types of lawsuits involving fatigued workers aren’t so rare.

Recently, sleep-deprived 911 operators in Brooklyn, NY, have filed a class action lawsuit, claiming they are ready to collapse from exhaustion after pulling 16-hour shifts for days in a row.

The lawsuit says several “operators have collapsed from exhaustion while dispatching calls and were removed … by paramedics.”

Another type of lawsuit involving fatigued workers are those in which a car crash takes the life of another motorist. Similar to the case involving Jasper, family members of the deceased sue the fatigued worker’s employer for damages.

Federal regulations on maximum working hours cover commercial truck drivers and airline pilots, but not the healthcare industry. California has regulations for healthcare facility staffing that indirectly impact staff schedules.

Some good rules of thumb for scheduling employees who work long hours, rotating shifts or late night/early morning shifts:

  • Allow employees to have at least 10 hours between shifts for rest (example: if a worker’s shift ends at 7 a.m., don’t schedule him/her to return until 5 p.m. at the earliest)
  • Rotate schedules forward, not backward (example: scheduling a worker for the daytime shift on Monday and the nighttime shift on Tuesday is OK, but the reverse isn’t), and
  • Shorter workdays are generally better than longer ones (example: an 8-hour day versus a 12-hour one).
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