Civil damages not applicable against Vermillion County in Majors case

By Patricia L. Pastore/Tribune-Star

June 4, 2003

The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that Vermillion County is not liable for civil damages sought by relatives of patients who died while under the care of Orville Lynn Majors, a former nurse at the Vermillion County Hospital.

Those involved in the case from both sides greeted the news Tuesday with mixed reactions.

The ruling orders a trial court judge to grant summary judgment to the county and its Board of Commissioners on all negligence and civil rights claims made by 80 plaintiffs. Among their contentions, they claim county officials failed to protect patients from Majors.

Some claims were not filed in time and others should be dismissed because a county health officer was not responsible for investigating deaths, the appeals court said. The county was not responsible for day-to-day operations of the hospital, it also said.

The appeals court judges "did exactly what I said they'd do," said Larry Thomas, former Vermillion County attorney. He assisted Bloomington attorney William Kelley with the initial arguments in this case, he said.

The ruling was released Tuesday in a 20-page opinion.

Thomas said the appeals court sustained the argument that the county is not responsible because the hospital was founded and operated on the 1917 Hospital Act, which didn't require commissioners to be on the hospital board.

"In essence, the commissioners had no control over the hospital," he said. "The hospital board had supreme authority all along, just as we argued. Basically the appeals court ruled in favor of the county on everything."

Tim Wilson, president of the Vermillion County Board of Commissioners, expressed relief.

"It could have cost the taxpayers a lot of money if it had gone the other way," he said.

But his feeling of elation could be short-lived.

"This doesn't mean it's over," Wilson said. "They have 30 days in which to file an appeal."

In cases where large amounts of money are involved, it's not unusual for the plaintiff to appeal the appellate court ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court, Thomas said.

"I would think it will be appealed," he said. "Basically [the appeals court] bought the argument we made at the start -- the commissioners had no control over the hospital. The opposition was trying to bring the hospital in under a 1983 rule."

Majors was convicted on six counts of murder in 1999 for administering lethal injections of heart-stopping drugs to patients in the Clinton hospital between May 1993 and March 1995. He was sentenced to 360 years in prison by Brazil Circuit Court Judge Ernest Yelton. His convictions have been upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court.

State Police spent thousands of hours investigating more than 100 deaths in the hospital.

Wrongful death suits were filed by survivors of about 80 patients who died while Majors worked at the hospital.

Last year, Terre Haute attorney Eric Frey, who has represented some of the families, said many of the cases were settled at least partially through the Indiana's Patient Compensation Fund.

Lawsuits, however, were still pending against the county and some doctors at the hospital.

Tuesday's appellate court ruling involved claims made against the county.

Some contended county commissioners and Dr. John Albrecht, who oversaw the hospital's intensive-care unit and served as the county health officer, failed to investigate the high number of deaths at the hospital.

The appeals court's opinion is that a county health officer is responsible for keeping and forwarding death records but "he is not responsible for investigating a suspiciously high number of deaths" with no apparent connection to communicable diseases.

Albrecht claims his opinion concerning the "high number of deaths" has never changed.

"I feel the same way I have all along," he said. "I still maintain there was not a big number of deaths in 1993, 1994, 1995," he said. "The location changed, but not the number of deaths. Prior to people dying in the hospital, they died in nursing homes and in the community. Where they died -- that is what really changed."

Sisters Betty Coonce of St. Bernice and Paula Holdaway of rural Terre Haute were disappointed in the appeals court ruling.

Majors was convicted of killing their mother, Dorothea Hixon, by injecting her with a drug that stopped her heart.

Both women hoped the county commissioners and Albrecht also would be held accountable, they said.

"I'm disappointed because I believe the board, administration and the health officer had plenty of warning for months about these suspicious deaths," Coonce said. "How can they not be responsible?"

Holdaway echoed her sister's sentiments and then added, "I got what I was after when Majors was convicted," she said. "I wanted him put away. I am disappointed the commissioners and Albrecht are not taking responsibility."

County commissioners were responsible for appointments to the hospital's governing board, but not for general management and control of the hospital, the ruling said.

Thomas concurs with that opinion.

When he served as county attorney, the commissioners made hospital board appointments, he said, adding none of the commissioners served on the hospital's board of directors.

Frey and Stephen Williams, also listed as an attorney for the plaintiffs, were not available for comment Tuesday.

William Kelley, who represented the Vermillion County Hospital, was not immediately available for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Patricia Pastore can be reached at (812)231-4271 or pat.pastore@tribstar.com

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