Hospital Not Liable for Elderly Woman’s Death

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A hospital with outdated sensors on its automatic doors is not liable for the death of an elderly woman after the doors closed on her, an appeals court ruled.

On August 13, 2013, 87-year-old Verna Pitra, a slight woman who relied on a walker to get around, was walking to meet her husband in the parking garage of hospital in the New Orleans suburbs when she was struck by the facility’s automatic doors as she tried to pass through.

The impact of the doors caused Pitre to fall, hitting her head against the terrazzo floor, and she died 18 days later.

Pitre’s husband and daughter sued East Jefferson General Hospital, saying Pitre’s death was the result of her fall.

A witness who was leaving the hospital at the same time as Pitre and saw her fall testified during trial in the lower court that she saw this “little lady” with a walker come through the doors with her walker as the doors were opening. Before Pitre was able to get all the way through, the doors began to close on her. According to the witness, “the door hit [Pitre] hard enough that it knocked her basically off her feet, hit her from the left, and she fell to the right and fell just straight out and hit her head.”

A technician hired to inspect the doors for the hospital testified the door at issue was manufactured by Stanley and was a full-power automatic door. He also said both he and another technician had previously given the door an unsatisfactory safety rating for not having a particular motion sensor.

In his testimony, the technician said that while the risk that an automatic door without the particular presence sensing detectors would close on someone is very slight, “the risk was still there.” Such a risk, he said, was what the presence sensors were designed to address.

Another maintenance technician testified that he and other workers at the hospital had discussed the possibility of an accident, “like some little old lady on a walker, you know, going through there and being hit by the door.”

Such an accident, it was well understood, according to testimony, would only occur if the exact circumstances came together.

Because the doors opened and closed slowly, a maintenance worker recommended the sensors be upgraded, according to testimony before the lower court.

The worker also testified that although he recommended the sensors be updated, he also noted that “it takes a certain amount of circumstances coming together as it did in this case to have a problem.”

The Fifth Circuit upheld the lower court’s finding that although the hospital had received notice its doors were not up to date and received information on how to bring them to code, the hospital was not told that not updating the electric doors might result in a tragic accident.

The maintenance worker and the lower court also noted that Pitre’s fall was the only accident of the sort to have ever happened with those doors.

In upholding the lower court’s decision, Judge Stephen Windhorst wrote there was “no manifest error in the trial court’s conclusion that EJGH did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the doors were defective, unsafe or presented an unreasonable risk of harm.”