DENVER (CN) - As many as 3,000 patients of a Denver hospital may have been exposed to HIV and hepatitis by a drug-using, needle-swapping technician, surgical patients say in a federal class action.
The Swedish Medical Center fired the technician in late January, after a fellow employee claimed to have caught him stealing a syringe of fentanyl, a strong painkiller, and replacing it with a different syringe. The hospital did not identify the fired worker at the time, but Englewood police identified him as Rocky Allen, 28.
A federal grand jury charged Allen on Feb. 16 with tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance by deceit, according to the class action lawsuit. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison and fined $500,000.
The Swedish Medical Center in February sent a letter to 3,000 patients who had undergone surgical procedures between August 2015 and January this year - the course of Allen's employment - and informed them they may have been exposed to blood-borne pathogens.
At least two people are believed to have contracted hepatitis B after having surgery at Swedish Medical Center in that time frame.
Named as defendants are the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), and HealthONE LLC dba the Swedish Medical Center, one of several Denver-area hospitals run by HealthONE.
The plaintiffs say the hospital's inadequate hiring processes resulted in the ill-advised hiring of Allen, who had been fired for stealing drugs and syringes from other hospitals, and court-martialed for it while he was in the Navy.
"Swedish Medical failed these patients when it hired Rocky Allen," the plaintiffs' attorney Joseph Sauder told Courthouse News. "The most cursory background investigation would have revealed that Allen was someone who should not have had access to surgical patients and the hospital's medication.
"He has a long history of this exact behavior, including a court martial in 2011 by the Navy for stealing a syringe containing fentanyl and a termination from a San Diego hospital in 2013 for needle swapping."
According to the lawsuit, Allen was court-martialed in 2011 "and pleaded guilty to making a false official statement, wrongfully possessing approximately 30 vials of fentanyl, wrongly possessing a syringe containing fentanyl, stealing fentanyl and stealing a syringe containing fentanyl." The Navy would have made that information available to the hospital, had it asked, according to the complaint.
Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Calif. fired Allen in June 2013, after less than two months on the job, when "he was caught switching a fentanyl syringe with a saline-filled syringe," the complaint states. Scripps said it notified the DEA.
Allen was fired from a Phoenix hospital in October 2014, after two months on the job, for testing positive for fentanyl while working, according to the complaint.
HealthONE had a similar scandal in 2009, when its surgical technician Kristen Parker at Rose Medical Center was fired after she was caught injecting fentanyl and replacing the syringes with a saline solution. Fifteen patients contracted Parker's hepatitis C.
Sauder said his clients have tested negative for the diseases so far.
"While the named plaintiffs have fortunately tested negative in their first round of blood tests, they have been instructed by the hospital to get follow-up testing over the next several weeks and months," Sauder said.
The immune system needs eight to 12 weeks to produce antibodies to HIV and hepatitis, and blood tests search for the antibodies, so conclusive tests cannot be made immediately.
"Thus, the named plaintiffs, like the nearly 3,000 [other] patients, must continue to live in fear that they have contracted a potentially deadly virus," Sauder said.
Nicole Williams, spokeswoman for Swedish Medical Center, said in a statement that the hospital properly followed procedure after Allen's actions came to light.
"Our staff reacted swiftly and appropriately to report this incident to multiple authorities and to notify patients as no one had previously, even knowing it would result in intense publicity and lawsuits from plaintiffs' attorneys seeking to take advantage of this unfortunate situation for their own monetary gain," Williams said in the statement. "We will defend ourselves vigorously."
Plaintiffs seek class certification, restitution, medical monitoring, and punitive damages for negligence, negligent hiring, and emotional distress. They also request an injunction ordering the hospital to improve its hiring process and storage of medications.
Attorney Sauder is with McCuneWright, in Berwyn, Pa.
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