Colombini Case – Lawsuit Machinations

Last month, the judge in the Michael Colombini lawsuit (the case resulting from the infamous death by oxygen tank / cylinder brought into the MRI room while the boy was in the scanner) decided on three of the last outstanding pre-trial motions. The Judge’s decisions appear to have excused one defendant, entirely, and tempered the degree of potential liability for others.

The first of the three motions decided was from GE Healthcare, seeking to be excused, altogether, as a defendant in the case. The trial judge granted GE’s motion, citing (primarily) Riegel v. Medtronic which gives manufacturers of medical devices very broad protections in state courts because the devices have been vetted for safety at the federal level.

The second outstanding motion, which was one filed by the Colombini family’s attorney, sought the ability to reinstate punative damages claims against GE Healthcare for their involvement in the accident. This motion was rendered moot when the judge granted GE’s motion to be excused from the case, entirely.

The last of the decided motions was a smorgasbord of requests of the remaining (non-GE) defendants to dismiss claims against assorted defendants, to disallow punitive damages against some defendants, and to disallow claims of ’emotional distress’ by the father of the boy.

  • The judge dismissed all causes of action against the senior MR technologist in the suite at the time of the accident because (1) it was not demonstrated that he bore any responsibility for a safe suite environment (in fact the judge’s decision defines the limits of his responsibility to the scanner room, itself), and (2) he was not the tech administering the scan for the boy and therefore had no direct responsibility for his care. The judge’s notes also diminish the technologists’ role in safety by stating that they are not MD’s and had minimal safety training.
  • The judged refused to dismiss claims agains New York Medical College (affiliated with the hospital) based on the College’s contention that NYMC had no direct role in training of persons involved in the accident, allowing this issue to be tried in court.
  • The judge dismissed claims associated with the father’s contention that he suffered emotional distress based on the legal definition which requires that the person filing the claim feel “unreasonbly threatened by bodily harm” directly to them. That the father felt that his son was unreasonably threatened falls outside the legal definition for the basis of a claim of emotional distress.
  • The judge refused to dismiss claims for punitive damages against UIMA, the company that ran the MRI unit for the hospital, allowing that the failure to provide complete and effective safety training may ammount to “utter indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others.”
  • The judge stated that she thought that the technologist administering the scan exaggerated her job duties when she had previously stated that technologists were the MRI suite “gatekeepers” with responsibility to keep a “watchful eye” to prevent ferromagnetic material from being brought in. Since, per the judge, overall suite safety was NOT deemed a reasonable responsibility of a technologist, the judge disallowed the possibility of punitive damages against the tech that administered the scan.
  • Finally, the judge dismissed any action for punitive damages against the radiologist who served both as the hospital’s Director of Radiology and president of UIMA, the contractor providing MRI services to the hospital, because he “had no experience supervising MRI facilities . . . and did not view himself as having taken on any supervisory responsibilities with respect to the MRI facility. . .”

If we accept that some level of MRI safety should be a basic right of everyone inside the MRI suite (including staff), then we need to identify who has a role in making sure that MRI safety is actually implemented.

My view is that all parties involved in providing and administering MRI exams have an obligation to the safety of the patient. This includes the organizations who own and operate the scanners for establishing standards and providing applicable training and verifying competencies, directors / administrators / safety officers who have broad duties on behalf of the organization for the protection of patient safety, any person — whether MD, RN or technologist — who works in the MR environment, sites where accidents occur to report incidents in which there was a reasonable potential for harm, and MR equipment manufacturers to actively collect, report, and distribute details of accidents that might help others to better protect against these risks. These responsibilities are both institutional and individual.

If the judge’s decisions on these motions are not challenged (as has happened previously in this case), we should be inching closer towards a real trial date. As of the date of this post, the case is still scheduled to be fully resolved by early January of 2010. It remains to be seen whether that deadline will hold, or be pushed back.

If you would like to read this most recent decision by the judge on the three pre-trial motions she decided, it is available for download. Just click here to download the judge’s decision in Word format (.doc) from the blog site New York Injury Cases. To see the blog site, just click here.

Of course, if you come back here to the ‘MRI Metal Detector’ blog, or subscribe to the RSS updates (click here for more information on the free RSS subscription), I’ll provide you with any and all updates as I get them.

Tobias Gilk, President & MRI Safety Director
Mednovus, Inc.

UPDATE: Details of the finalized lawsuit settlement are available here.

10 thoughts on “Colombini Case – Lawsuit Machinations

  1. Wendy Stirnkorb

    If the trained MRI professional holds no responsibility for the safety of the patient, then for God sake, who does? Part of this ruling is a result of the ignorance of the judge in what responsibilities a trained MRI technologist truly has and in what radiologists in both hospital and free standing outpatient facilities truly know about MRI safety. Radiologists are trained to interpret the images, but are minimally knowledgeable about magnetic safety, as a rule. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this, but in many facilities, the MRI team is the end all when it comes to magnetic safety. This ruling, if upheld, not only minimizes the skills of trained MRI professionals, it holds no technologist, those with direct patient care, responsible for their actions or inactions.

  2. Jonathan Mazal Post author

    Wow….I had no idea that the case was still even going on! Thanks for the update. I wonder how much impact the ruling will have on our scope of practice and level of responsibility?? On one hand if the tech involved is dismissed from liability, that is a good thing for the individual tech. On the other hand, doesn’t such a ruling (diminishing our role in MR safety responsibility) hurt the profession by reinforcing the infamous “button pusher” label which we abhor?

  3. Bart Pierce

    Well I relieved that the MRI technologist will not be held liable but on the other hand shouldn’t they be? We ARE the gate keepers regardless of what the judge says. This ruling will just serve to increase the incompetence and degrade the public’s perception of our professional abilities. How can we expect to enforce proper safety parameters if in the end it is nobody’s fault?
    Just my two cents

  4. David Di Domenico

    The individual DIRECTLY responsible for the safety of patients in the MRI environment is the MRI Technologist – PERIOD!!! No ifs, no buts, no semantics.

    If this decision is upheld does this mean that all MRI Technologists in the US are absolved of their responsibility to the safety of their patients? Dangerous precedent!!!…. (not to mention disturbingly disrespectful).

  5. Sandra Chitwood

    Sounds to me like this judge is very uneducated as to the workings of the MRI environment.

  6. Kim

    I still cannot understand why imaging, all modalities, do not have a governing body which ensures that facilities across the country uphold an approved set of standards & mandates. These standards would include safety, QC & QA procedures & educationsal requirements to name a few. We have the ACR which “suggests” or “recommends” certain standards, but I think there needs to be mandates that are implemented as standard & not vary from state to state. There are a lot of facilities that now have MR “zones” for pt safety. This should be the standard across the board w/all facilities, wether it’s a hospital or free standing out patient facility. I also believe that if we have universal standards in which facilities must be in compliance, ancillary & external healthcare providers would be more receptive & respectful of our profession. Most “outside” people, (pt’s, doctors, nurses etc.) do no understand the magnitude of what goes on in imaging, especially when it comes to pt safety.

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