Widow whose husband died at Marion, Ill., VA settles wrongful-death lawsuit

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- A widow whose husband died at a Southern Illinois Veterans Affairs hospital under fire for substandard care has agreed to settle her lawsuit against the government for $975,000, her attorney said.

Katrina Shank had sought $12 million in her federal wrongful-death lawsuit. Her husband, 50-year-old Air Force veteran Robert Shank III of Murray, Ky., bled to death in August 2007, a day after undergoing gallbladder surgery at the VA hospital in Marion, Ill.

Shank's widow claimed the government failed to sufficiently check the background of her husband's surgeon, Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez, before hiring him in January 2006.

At least one other lawsuit involving care by Veizaga-Mendez at the hospital is pending. Darla Marshall of Kentucky sued the government last spring, seeking $10 million in damages. Her husband, James Marshall, 61, of Benton, Ky., died of a blood infection in July 2007, six days after Veizaga-Mendez performed a lymph node biopsy.

Veizaga-Mendez resigned three days after Robert Shank's death, and major surgeries were ordered halted there after inspectors attributed several patient deaths to questionable surgical care.

Terms involving Katrina Shank's deal were not disclosed in court documents, though her attorney, Stan Heller, said the settlement was $975,000 -- a sum that he said amounts to an admission of responsibility by the government.

"They wouldn't be paying close to $1 million if they didn't believe they screwed up," Heller said Tuesday. "The government doesn't toss money like that around easily."

Heller, who also represents Darla Marshall, said the settlement took into account factors such as Robert Shank's joblessness at the time of his death.

A VA spokesman, Paul Sherbo, said only that "the VA has no information to offer on this case, pending a review by the court."

According to an order by U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert, the settlement automatically becomes final after 90 days unless it hits a snag.

The VA found at least nine deaths between October 2006 and March 2007 were "directly attributable" to substandard care at the hospital, which serves veterans from Southern Illinois, southwestern Indiana and western Kentucky. Those deaths did not include Robert Shank and James Marshall, who died months later.

The VA's findings do not put the sole blame on Veizaga-Mendez, but Shank's lawsuit said many or all of those who died were his patients.

Of an additional 34 cases the VA investigated, 10 patients died after receiving questionable care that complicated their health, officials said. Investigators could not determine if the actual care caused those deaths.

Veizaga-Mendez, who is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuits, has no listed telephone number and has not responded to repeated messages left by the AP at a Massachusetts home listed as an address for his wife.

Minor surgical procedures resumed at the Marion VA in May. VA Secretary James Peake said during a September tour of the Marion site that the hospital still must hire a surgeon and a chief of staff before any major operations can resume.

The VA's own investigations of the surgical deaths often have been blistering, at times labeling the hospital's previous management as "dysfunctional and inefficient."

A heavily redacted VA report in June also found poor employee morale stemming from various concerns ranging from sexual harassment, forced retirements of elderly staff and the quality of patient care, including the hiring of poor physicians.

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