After Amanda Wilson lost her son, Braden, 15, to COVID-19 in early 2021, she tried to honor his memory. She put up a lending library box in his name. She plans to give the money she saved for his college education to other teens who love the arts and technology.
But in one area, she hit a brick wall: attempting to force change at the California hospital where she believes her son contracted COVID-19 in December 2020. While seeking treatment for a bleeding cyst, Braden was surrounded for hours by coughing patients in the emergency room, Wilson said. Yet, she said, she has been unable to get the hospital to show her improvements it told her it made or get a lawyer to take her case.
“I was pretty shocked,” Wilson said. “There’s truly no recourse.”
Throughout the pandemic, lawmakers from coast to coast have passed laws, declared emergency orders or activated state-of-emergency statutes that severely limited families’ ability to seek recourse for lapses in COVID-19-related care.
Under such liability shields, legal advocates say, it’s nearly impossible to seek the legal accountability that can pry open information and drive systemic improvements to the infection-control practices that make hospitals safer for patients.
“Lawsuits are there for accountability and truth to be exposed,” said Kate Miceli, state affairs counsel for the American Association for Justice, which advocates for plaintiff lawyers. “These laws are absolutely preventing that.”
A previous KHN investigation documented that more than 10,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 after they were hospitalized for something else in 2020. Yet many others, including Braden Wilson, are not counted in those numbers because they were discharged before testing positive. Still, the KHN findings are the only nationally publicly available data showing rates of patients who tested positive for COVID-19 after admission into individual U.S. hospitals.
Those who have lost a family member say hospitals need to be held more accountable.
“My mom is not like one of those people who would say ‘Go sue them,’” said Kim Crail, who believes her 79-year-old mom contracted COVID-19 during an eight-day stay at a hospital in Edgewood, Kentucky, because she tested positive less than 48 hours after leaving. “But she just wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
‘You put your trust in the hospital’
At age 89, Yan Keynigshteyn had begun to fade with dementia. But he was still living at home until he was admitted to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles for a urological condition, according to Terry Ayzman, his grandson.
Keynigshteyn, a Soviet Union emigrant who did not understand English, found himself in an unfamiliar place with masked caregivers. The hospital confined him to his bed, Ayzman said. He did not understand how to navigate the family’s Zoom calls and, eventually, stopped talking.
He was tested regularly for COVID-19 during his two-week-plus stay, Ayzman said. On Keynigshteyn’s way home in an ambulance, his doctor got test results showing he had tested positive for COVID-19. It can take two to 14 days from exposure to COVID-19 for patients to start showing symptoms such as a fever, though the average is four to five days. His grandson believes that because Keynigshteyn was in the hospital for over two weeks before testing positive, he contracted COVID-19 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
As the ambulance doors opened and Keynigshteyn finally saw his wife and other family members, he smiled for the first time in weeks, Ayzman said. Then the crew slammed the doors shut and took him back to the hospital.
A few days later, Keynigshteyn died.
“You put your trust in the hospital and you get the short end of the stick,” Ayzman said. “It wasn’t supposed to be like that.”
Ayzman wanted to find out more from the hospital, but he said officials there refused to give him a copy of its investigation into his grandfather’s case, saying it was an internal matter and the results were inconclusive.
Hospital spokesperson Phil Hampton did not answer questions about Keynigshteyn. “UCLA Health’s overriding priority is the safety of patients, employees, visitors and volunteers,” he said, adding that the health system has been consistent with or exceeded infection-control protocols at the local, state and federal level throughout the pandemic.
Ayzman reached out to five lawyers, but he said none would take the case. He said they all told him courts were unsympathetic to cases against health care institutions at the time.
“I don’t believe that a state of emergency should give a license to hospitals to get away with things scot-free,” Ayzman said.
The current state of legal play
The avalanche of liability shield legislation was pitched as a way to prevent a wave of lawsuits, Miceli said. But it created an “unreasonable standard” for patients and families, she said, since a state-of-emergency raises the bar for filing medical malpractice cases and already makes many lawyers hesitant to take such cases.
Almost every state put extra liability shield protections in place during the pandemic, Miceli said. Some of them broadly protected institutions such as hospitals, while others were more focused on shielding health care workers.
Corporate-backed groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, American Tort Reform Association and the National Council of Insurance Legislators, helped pass a range of liability shield bills across the country through lobbying, working with state partners or drafting forms of model legislation, a KHN review has found.
William Melofchik, general counsel for NCOIL, said member legislators drafted their model bill because they felt it was important to guard against a never-ending wave of litigation and to be “better safe than sorry.”
Nathan Morris, vice president of legislative affairs for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, said his group’s work had influenced states across the country to implement what he called timely and effective protections for hospitals that were trying to do the right thing while working through a harrowing pandemic.
“Nothing that we advocated for would slam the courthouse door in the face of someone who had a claim that was clearly legitimate,” he said.
The other two organizations did not answer questions about their involvement in such work by deadline.
Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School, said such powerful corporate lobbying interests used the broader “health care heroes” moment to push through lawsuit protections for institutions like hospitals. She believes they will likely worsen patient outcomes.
“The fact that the hospitals were able to get immunity under these laws is pretty offensive and dangerous,” she said.
Some of the measures were time-limited or linked to public emergencies that have since expired, but, Miceli said, more than half of states still have some form of expanded liability laws and executive orders in place. Florida legislators are currently working to extend its protections to mid-2023.
Doctors’ groups and hospital leaders say they must have legal immunity in times of crisis.
“Liability protections can be incredibly important because they do encourage providers to continue working and to continue actually providing care in incredibly troubling emergency circumstances,” said Jennifer Piatt, a deputy director of the Western Region Office for the Network for Public Health Law.
Akin Demehin, director of policy for the American Hospital Association, said it’s important to remember the severe shortages in testing and personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic. He added that the health care workforce faced tremendous strain as it had to juggle new roles amid personnel shortages, along with ever-evolving federal guidance and understanding of how the coronavirus spreads.
Piatt cautioned that appropriately calibrating liability shields is delicate work, as protections that are too broad can deprive patients of their ability to seek recourse.
Those wanting to learn more about how COVID-19 spreads within a U.S. hospital have few resources. Dr. Abraar Karan, now an infectious diseases fellow at Stanford, and other researchers examined COVID-19 transmission rates among roommates at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. But few hospitals have dug deep on the topic, he said, which could reflect the stretched-thin resources in hospitals or a fear of negative media coverage.
“There should be dialogue from the lessons learned,” Karan said.
‘Do not put anything in writing’
Crail and Kelly Heeb lost their mother, Sydney Terrell, to COVID-19 early in 2021. The sisters believe she caught it during her more-than-weeklong stay at St. Elizabeth Edgewood Hospital outside Cincinnati following a hernia repair surgery.
They said she spent hours in an ER separated from other patients only by curtains and did not wear a mask in her patient room while she recovered. She was discharged from the hospital complaining about tightness in her chest, the sisters said. Within 24 hours, she spiked a fever. The next day, she was back in the ER, where she tested positive for COVID-19 on Christmas Eve 2020, they said. After a difficult bout with the virus, Terrell died Jan. 8.
When Crail attempted to file a complaint detailing their concerns, she said a hospital risk management employee told her: “‘No, do not put anything in writing.’”
Crail filed cursory paperwork anyway. She received the hospital’s conclusion in the mail in an envelope postmarked Dec. 1, more than seven months after the April 27 date typed at the top of the letterhead. The letter stated the St. Elizabeth Healthcare oversight committee determined it was “unable to substantiate” that their mother contracted COVID-19 in the hospital due to high community transmission rates, incubation timing and unreliable COVID-19 tests. The letter did note that despite the hospital system’s extensive protocols, “the risks of transmission will always exist.”
Guy Karrick, a spokesperson for the hospital, did not comment on the sisters’ specific case but said “we have not and would not tell any patient or family not to put their concerns in writing.” He added that the hospital has been following all federal and state guidelines to protect its patients.
Braden’s mom, Amanda Wilson, had far more dialogue with the hospital where she thinks her son got COVID-19. But it still left her with doubts that she made an impact.
When her son was in the Adventist Health Simi Valley ER in December 2020 in a bed separated by curtains, they could hear staffers periodically reminding coughing patients around them to keep on their masks. She and Braden kept their own masks on for the vast majority of their several-hours-long stay, she said, but staffers in their bay didn’t always have their own masks pulled up.
Hospital spokesperson Alicia Gonzalez said staffers “track infections that may occur in our facilities and we have no verified infection of any patient or visitor of COVID-19 in our facility,” adding that the hospital is “dedicated to serving our community and ensuring the safety of all who are cared for at our hospital.”
Wilson, a mathematician who works in the aerospace industry, expected the hospital to be able to show her evidence of some of the changes she discussed with hospital officials, including its president. For one, she hoped the staffers would get trained by a physician with direct experience treating the COVID-19 complication that made her son fatally ill, called MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome. She also had hoped to see proof that the hospital installed no-touch faucets in the ER bathroom, which would help limit the spread of infections.
Gonzalez said that hospital executives listened to Wilson’s concerns and met with her on more than one occasion and that the hospital has improved its internal processes and procedures as it has learned about transmissibility and best practices.
But Wilson said they wouldn’t send her photos or let her see the changes for herself. The hospital declined to list or provide evidence of the changes to KHN as well.
“It made me more angry,” Wilson said. “Here I tried to make it better for people. I couldn’t make it better for Braden, but for people who’d come to this hospital — it is the only hospital in our town.”
She said she reached out to a lawyer, who told her there would be no way to prove how Braden caught COVID-19. She had no other way to force more of a reckoning over her son’s death. So, she said, she has turned to other ways to “leave little pieces of him out in the world.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.