By MARY FOSTER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 7:16 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- A major New Orleans hospital and the company that owned it have settled a class action lawsuit in the deaths and injuries of patients who were stranded there during and after Hurricane Katrina.
The settlement was reached Wednesday as lawyers were picking a jury to hear the case. The agreement is subject to court approval, which attorney Joe Bruno, who represented one of the families suing the health providers, said should come in a few weeks.
Kurt Blankenship, a lawyer for the defendants, said the parties agreed to keep the terms of the settlement confidential.
"This has been a long and difficult situation for all concerned," Blankenship said in a statement.
About 2,000 patients, medical workers and other staff were stranded at Memorial Medical Center - which was owned by Tenet Health Systems - after the 2005 storm. Officials eventually recovered 45 bodies from Memorial.
The class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf Leonard Preston's relatives; of other people who were patients at the hospital; and of others whose relatives died or were injured there during the hurricane and the flooding that ensued. It claims Tenet was not prepared to care for the patients as conditions in the city deteriorated and that there was no valid plan to evacuate the patients, both of which led to deaths at Memorial.
Katrina left 85 percent of New Orleans flooded, including the area around the hospital. The lower level of the medical center was under 10 feet of water. Electrical power and communications failed; temperatures inside the building soared above 100 degrees. Food and water were limited. Many of the dead succumbed to dehydration as they waited for four days for boats and helicopters to rescue them.
The current lawsuits have nothing to do with earlier criminal charges brought against a doctor and two nurses, Bruno said.
"We are not blaming the doctors or others that were there working to take care of the patients," Bruno said.
The settlement, if approved by the court, would be divided among those stranded at the hospital whose claims are ruled valid, Bruno said. The 400-500 staff members who were there are not eligible to be part of the settlement.
If it is approved and no members of the class object, a special master will be appointed to evaluate claims and determine how to split up the settlement
Preston, who had diabetes, died at Memorial of dehydration during the storm, Bruno said.
Ochsner Health System later bought Memorial from Tenet and changed the name to Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. It reopened in January 2009 after renovation..