A former executive at Caro Community Hospital filed a lawsuit Monday against the organization, claiming she was fired as retaliation for reporting alleged negligence involving an underage patient in the emergency room.
Kelly Whittaker, former vice president of nursing, Caro Community Hospital (CCH), filed the suit in Tuscola County Circuit Court in Caro.
The suit lists one count: violation of public policy, retaliatory discharge for report of professional negligence. Whittaker seeks damages in excess of $25,000.
Allyson Joyce, vice president of human resources at CCH, told The Advertiser Friday that the organization couldn’t comment because it was not aware of the suit.
Whittaker’s complaint stems from an incident that allegedly occurred last year on Sept. 6, when an unidentified minor patient was taken to the hospital following a roll-over accident.
Whittaker claims an on-duty “med-surge nurse” was asked to assess the patient immediately and “determine if serious and/or emergency conditions existed given the nature of the collision.”
However, she says, that didn’t happen and instead, the patient was left “unattended, in the waiting room for more than (one) hour.”
The “actions and/or inactions of this nurse” were learned and confirmed by Whittaker the next day, and that prompted an investigation by the hospital’s Risk Manager, the suit claims.
In early October, the report from the investigation conducted by the Risk Manager was provided to Whittaker.
“However, the investigation reviewed the interactions between staff members regarding (the patient), as opposed to reviewing the nursing obligation and the core cause of any resulting failure,” Whittaker’s complaint states.
Not satisfied with the investigation results, Whittaker launched a “supplemental investigation.”
“Upon completion of her investigation, (Whittaker) believed that the Med-Surge Nurse was negligent in failing to assess and triage the patient,” the complaint claims.
Whittaker claims through her suit that she took her concerns to CCH CEO Marc Augsburger.
The suit claims Whittaker “advised Mr. Augsburger that the negligence of the nurse could have led to a sentinel event at the hospital.”
A “sentinel event” is defined by The Joint Commission — a health care accrediting organization — “as an unanticipated event in a healthcare setting resulting in death or serious physical or psychological injury to a patent or patients, not related to the natural course of the patient’s illness.”
Following Whittaker’s discussion with Augsburger, a meeting was held in October between Whittaker, Augsburger, two emergency room staff nurses, the risk manager, and the med-surge nurse, who said “she had both assessed and roomed” the minor patient, “neither of which was in the medical record or consistent with information provided by staffers,” the complaint claims.
Despite the meeting, Whittaker continued with her own investigation into what happened on Sept. 6. Subsequent interviews revealed the med-surge nurse “had not been truthful” in the October meeting that consisted of six people, according to the lawsuit.
“The CEO advised (Whittaker) that he was angry and that she should be fired because the hospital could potentially be sued for malpractice,” Whittaker’s complaint claims.
On Oct. 18, Whittaker went on short-term emergency leave due to a family emergency.
Whittaker returned to work Oct. 24, and “was fired days later on Nov. 2, 2016.”
Whittaker’s attorney cites public policy “that protect health care professionals from retaliatory actions for reporting negligence (malpractice) of other health care professionals.”
The complaint further claims Augsburger “preferred to sweep that negligence under the rug” and that CCH “has since reduced (Whittaker’s) contractually mandated severance in further retaliation for her report of co-worker negligence.”
According to Caro Community Hospital’s Form 990 — the publicly available tax form that is required to be filed by the IRS for nonprofits — the hospital is “a community-minded healthcare system…dedicated to providing compassionate care and services to enhance the health of all the patients we serve.” The hospital has a long history in Caro that can be traced to 1926. It opened in its current location in 1963.
For 2014 (the most recent year available), CCH reported revenue of about $13 million compared with about $11.5 million for the previous year. The nonprofit also reported total expenses of about $12.1 million in 2014 compared with about $11.2 million for the year prior.
In the section that lists officers, directors, trustees, key employees, and highest compensated employees, Whittaker was listed as director of nursing and the fourth highest paid with an annual salary of about $104,000. She is listed as working 80 hours a week.
In her lawsuit against CCH, Whittaker says she had worked for the organization since 1998 and consistently received good to outstanding evaluations that regularly earned her merit pay increases.
Whittaker is represented by Debra Freid, an attorney with Saginaw-based firm Freid, Gallagher, Taylor & Associates P.C. Freid did not return a call to The Advertiser Friday. Contact information for Whittaker could not be found.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]