Long-Running Wrongful Death Saga Continues After Declaratory Judgment Action Filed

On Wednesday, a case was refiled in the Northern District of Ohio. The case was filed by Mr. Steven Armatas as a wrongful death action against Pulmonary Physicians of Ohio, Aultcare Insurance Company, and Aultman Hospital. This specific action was filed for the purpose of clarifying a prior federal decision in this case and seeking confirmation if the prior dismissal was with or without prejudice for the purposes of expediting state court litigation on this same issue.

The case arose out of the medical treatment of Alexander Armatas in the months of October through December 2014. Armatas, according to the filing, experienced a cardiac episode and was sent to Aultman Hospital for treatment. After receiving emergency room treatment, the plaintiff was informed that the patient had received severe injuries including bleeding on the brain, pneumonia, a broken neck or severed spine, cracked vertebrae, a brain contusion, and dying bowel syndrome. However, the plaintiff alleged that there was no confirmation of the neurological injuries and that no testing was performed to confirm this diagnosis at that time. The patient’s medical records were later reviewed by two neurologists, but plaintiff alleged no physical examination was performed. All doctors involved with the case recommended cessation of life support due to the severity of the diagnosis and the advanced age of the patient.

The plaintiff contended that he received overbearing pressure to remove life support from all physicians involved. Two physicians presented the case to the hospital ethics committee seeking to provide only palliative care, but allegedly received direction from the hospital ethics committee to continue to provide full code treatment in compliance with the plaintiff’s wishes. The patient later developed gangrene and plaintiff demanded review by a vascular specialist. During the course of the continuing treatment and remainder of the patient’s life, there were several statements and conduct made by the treating doctors regarding the lack of positive prognosis for the patient, especially considering the patient’s age and frailty, and the necessity of ceasing life support. The plaintiff filed a grievance with Aultcare regarding these comments and other ethics concerns in the treatment. The insurance company, despite the patient being in a coma, refused to process the third party complaint without the signature of the patient. The plaintiff said they then sought the intercession of his Congressman, James Renacci, and after intervention from the Congressman’s office, the grievance was processed and the responsibility for the patient’s care was transferred to a doctor of the plaintiff’s choice. The patient eventually died as a result of complications from the gangrene.

After the death of the patient, the plaintiff sought records of the full review of the grievance, but was informed such materials were confidential. The plaintiff found the initial records to be incomplete and misleading and made a complaint seeking additional records and further review of the ethical treatments during the patients care. Upon trying to follow up in person, the plaintiff was informed that all Aultman employees had been instructed not to speak to him and that if he returned a suit would be filed for trespass. The plaintiff then filed the initial suit in this case in Ohio State Court, Stark County Court of Common Pleas. 

As a part of this suit, the plaintiff sought complete medical records for the treatment of the patient. The medical records were allegedly not provided for over a year during the course of the litigation, during which several claims were made regarding HIPAA, regarding whether the plaintiff was the actual legal representative of the patient or not. In February 2018, as a result of the alleged delaying tactics at the trial level and due to concerns of possible ex parte contact with the judge involved with the case, the plaintiff filed a voluntary non-suit of the case in order to refile in federal court.

The initial federal court action was filed in February 2019. The federal case was dismissed pursuant to a magistrate recommendation without designation on the federal causes of action. The federal court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law causes, which the plaintiff contends means that the causes were dismissed without prejudice, though the confirmation of that status was not explicit in the order and is the reason for the current federal suit.

The case was then again re-filed in the Ohio state court system to pursue the state claims. During this second state trial action, the defendants made several arguments that the statute of limitations has expired for certain claims in the action, and that the dismissal from the federal court system was with prejudice and therefore certain claims face res judicata from the federal decision.

As a result, the plaintiff has filed this second federal action seeking a declaratory decision as to whether the prior federal dismissal was with, or without prejudice, as well as whether the federal savings clause applies to this action or not.