Knoxville hospital uses COVID as liability shield for suit over fatal medical mistake

By: - March 31, 2022 9:00 am
(Photo illustration: Getty Images)

(Photo illustration: Getty Images)

A Knoxville hospital is trying to use the COVID-19 pandemic to shield itself from liability for a nurse’s fatal medication administration mistake, court records show.

Sonny Caldwell was being treated for various conditions, including COVID-19, while he was a patient at the Turkey Creek Medical Center in October 2020, but an investigation by the Knox County Regional Forensic Center shows he didn’t die from any of those conditions.

Instead, an autopsy stated, Caldwell died because a nurse there inexplicably crushed up medications meant to be taken orally and pumped them through an intravenous tube, causing a blockage that killed him within minutes.

“His main cause of death is acute embolization of foreign material (crushed medication),” Knox County Assistant Medical Examiner Maxwell Rollins wrote.

But attorneys for the West Knoxville hospital and its registered nurse, Angela M. Martinez, claim the facility and the nurse are legally bulletproof from liability in Caldwell’s death under a federal emergency COVID-19 pandemic order.

A lawsuit filed by the family of Sonny Caldwell alleges  a registered nurse crushed pills Caldwell was prescribed, and then, rather than administer them through his feeding tube, pumped them into his intravenous tube. An autopsy found the crushed pills caused a blockage, killing Caldwell.

“It is undisputed that Mr. Caldwell was a COVID-19 patient with COVID-19-related pneumonia, and this was the reason for his hospital stay,” the hospital’s lawyers wrote. “The alleged medication administration error occurred because hospital staff were administering pharmaceuticals designed to treat or mitigate Mr. Caldwell’s COVID-19 and COVID-19 related pneumonia. As such, the alleged conduct at issue in this case fits squarely within the immunity provision, which bars plaintiff’s claim.”

Crushed pills, sudden death

Amy Rickett, Caldwell’s daughter, is suing the hospital and its nurse in Knox County Circuit Court for the wrongful death of her father.

Caldwell, 82, tested positive for COVID-19 after he was transferred from a Kentucky hospital – where he was receiving treatment for unrelated medical conditions – to the Turkey Creek Medical Center on Sept. 29, 2020.

The lawsuit says Caldwell was eventually placed on a ventilator to help him breathe, but doctors repeatedly noted in medical chart entries that Caldwell was “improving” with each passing day.

On the morning of Oct. 12, 2020, Caldwell was due a round of oral medication for conditions that had nothing to do with COVID-19, including heart disease, the lawsuit states. But he was both sedated and intubated and couldn’t take the pills on his own.

Martinez, the lawsuit states, crushed the pills and then, rather than administer them through Caldwell’s feeding tube, pumped them into his intravenous tube. Caldwell’s heart rate immediately plummeted, and he was dead within six minutes, the lawsuit states.

Martinez did not notify the forensic center of Caldwell’s sudden death for seven hours, records show.

The lawsuit accuses Martinez of trying to alter records to hide what she had done before notifying the forensic center of Caldwell’s death.

“At or about 16:59 (4:59 p.m.) and 17:05 (5:05 p.m.) on Oct. 12, 2020, Nurse Martinez modified Mr. Caldwell’s chart to indicate that numerous medications were ‘not given – (reason) other,’ the lawsuit stated.”

Martinez told the medical examiner’s office Caldwell “was diagnosed with pneumonia and sepsis related to COVID-19” and that his “condition continued to decline,” leading to his death.

Caldwell’s family, though, wasn’t buying it and, according to forensic center records, insisted an autopsy be performed to determine what killed him.

“Nurse Martinez stated that the family was requesting an autopsy regarding allegations that a nurse had given (Caldwell) crushed medications via intravenous route rather than through his feeding tube,” a forensic center report read.

Rickett’s attorneys – Weldon Patterson, Grant Mitchell and Matthew Stombaugh – allege in the lawsuit that Martinez didn’t tell the forensic center that she was the one who administered those “crushed medications.”

Tennova Healthcare-Turkey Creek Medical Center in Knoxville. (Photo: Tennova-Turkey Creek Medical Center Facebook page)
Tennova Healthcare-Turkey Creek Medical Center in Knoxville. (Photo: Tennova-Turkey Creek Medical Center Facebook page)

“Nowhere in the narrative above (in the forensic center report) does it record nurse Martinez admitting that she was the nurse who allegedly gave the patient crushed medications via intravenous route rather than through his feeding tube,” the attorneys wrote.

Pandemic as legal shield

The lawsuit filing includes a copy of Caldwell’s autopsy and other records from the Knox County Regional Forensic Center investigation. The forensic center is tasked with investigating suspicious deaths in Knox and Anderson Counties, and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan and her assistants are recognized by courts across Tennessee as experts in the field of death investigation.

Those records show Miluesnic-Polchan ordered a forensic center death investigation after determining Martinez had misled medical examiner staff about her role in Caldwell’s death. The forensic center probe confirmed Caldwell’s death resulted from Martinez’s actions, not COVID-19 or COVID-19 treatment.

But Nashville attorneys Blake Carter, C.J. Gideon Jr. and Natalie M. Gideon are using a federal COVID-19 pandemic order to try to shield Martinez and the hospital from financial liability in Caldwell’s death.

That order promised health care workers immunity from liability if COVID-19 vaccines or COVID-19 treatments and “countermeasures” caused serious injury or death.

The attorneys contend it doesn’t matter that Caldwell did not die as a result of either COVID-19 or COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The fact that he was diagnosed with COVID-19, they argue, is enough to shield Martinez and Turkey Creek Medical Center from legal responsibility.

“It is clear from the face of the complaint that Mr. Caldwell’s death occurred in connection with the administration of medications to treat COVID-19-related illnesses,” the attorneys wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“The alleged medication administration error that plaintiff claims caused Mr. Caldwell’s death was clearly a provision of a covered (COVID-19) countermeasure by a qualified person under the (federal pandemic order),” the motion stated.

A decision on the hospital’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit has not yet been made.


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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.