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Delaying Treatment for Stroke Victims May Be Actionable In California

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Brain, motor, and neurological injuries from stroke can be devastating.  It is well known that time is of the essence in treating stroke victims.  Delays in obtaining treatment can often significantly increase the ultimate injuries a person suffers from stroke.  Published case law, including a 2015 California case, support imposing legal liability, in some circumstances, on persons or entities who cause or exacerbate a stroke victim’s injury by negligently delaying treatment for a stroke victim.

In Harb v. City of Bakersfield (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 606, the California Court of Appeal held that defendant first responders could be liable to a stroke victim for negligently delaying a victim’s treatment.  In Harb, Dr. Harb was in Bakersfield, California driving home after his shift at the hospital, when he suffered a stroke and drove his car onto the sidewalk.  The police who arrived on the scene did not call an ambulance immediately, believing Dr. Harb’s vomiting, slurred speech and disorientation indicated intoxication.  The Court noted the officer did not detect any odor of alcohol on Dr. Harb’s breath nor notice redness or watering in his eyes.  Dr. Harb was placed in handcuffs.  The first ambulance to arrive on the scene left the scene without Dr. Harb.  Dr. Harb was not transported to the hospital for treatment until additional officers arrived on the scene and a second ambulance was called, more than half an hour after the first officer arrived on the scene.  As a result of the delay in transporting the plaintiff to the hospital for treatment, the lawsuit claimed that Dr. Harb suffered extensive bleeding in his brain which resulted in brain damage leaving him unable to take care of himself.  Dr. Harb and his wife brought suit against the defendants for the additional harm caused by the delay in treatment.

The Court of Appeal in Harb reversed the jury trial verdict on the grounds of error in the jury instructions, and remanded the case for re-trial.  Harb concluded that “a plaintiff’s comparative fault should not be presented to the jury when the plaintiff’s allegedly negligent conduct occurred before the first responders arrived at the scene.” (Harb v. City of Bakersfield, supra, 233 Cal.App.4th at 633).  In doing, so, Harb endorsed the basic theory, at least under the circumstances of that case, that a claim for delayed treatment following a stroke caused by negligence or other wrongful conduct is actionable in California.

Courts outside of California have arrived at similar holdings finding that delay in treatment for stroke victims may be actionable.  In Graff v. Amtrak, (N.D. Ill. 2003) 264 F.Supp.2d 725, the plaintiff suffered a stroke shortly after boarding an Amtrak train in Illinois. The train arrived at its station approximately an hour later where the Fire Department was waiting and took the plaintiff to the hospital. The Court denied a summary judgment motion by Amtrak, holding that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Amtrak’s failure to make arrangements so that the plaintiff would have gotten medical attention earlier caused or contributed to her injuries, including a reduced chance of recovery.

The holdings in Harb and Graff illustrate that persons or entities that cause or exacerbate a stroke victim’s injury through delay in treatment may be liable to the stroke victim for injuries resulting from that delay.  The Harb decision in particular is precedent for such an action in California.

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