Claim against hospital in AIDS death dropped

February 02, 1991|By Susan Baerand Lyle Denniston

A Baltimore lawyer has dropped plans, at least for the time being, to try to force a New York hospital to pay compensation for the AIDS disease that took the life of prominent John Hopkins surgeon Dr. Rudolph Almaraz.

The attorney, Marvin Ellin, had been planning to file formal claims in New York against Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, seeking workmen's compensation on the theory that Dr. Almaraz contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome while performing surgery at the center in late 1983.

The theory was based on information Mr. Ellin said he got from Dr. Almaraz, suggesting that an accident during the surgery caused his exposure to the blood of a patient suffering from AIDS. Sloan-Kettering has denied that there was any accident during the surgery cited by Dr. Almaraz that could have exposed him to AIDS.

Dr. Almaraz, who specialized in treating women with breast cancer, died Nov. 16 at age 41. In December,

Johns Hopkins Hospital sent letters offering free AIDS tests to an estimated 1,800 patients on whom Dr. Almaraz had operated.

Dr. Almaraz's estate and Johns Hopkins Hospital have since been sued for damages by former patients.

Mr. Ellin, interviewed by telephone yesterday, said the decision not to go forward "at the present time" with the compensation claims was made partly to avoid the risk of making it easier for former patients of Dr. Almaraz to pursue their claims for damages from Dr. Almaraz's estate.

At least three personal injury lawsuits against the estate have been filed, he said.

The Sun has reported that one of the lawsuits, by former patient Perry Mahoney Rossi and her husband, Dennis T. Rossi, is seeking compensatory damages of $10 million for lack of informed consent, $10 million for fraud in concealing the surgeon's condition and $2 million for loss of marital consortium. The suit asks for another $10 million in punitive damages.

If the workmen's compensation case had gone forward now, Mr. Ellin said, information about Dr. Almaraz would have had to be revealed before a state administrative agency, and that information might then have been obtained by lawyers for former patients, to assist them in pressing the damage lawsuits.

The hospital, Mr. Ellin said, almost certainly would have fought the compensation claims vigorously, and in the process it would have demanded "material that we have that would not be in the best interest of the defense" against the lawsuits.

A spokeswoman for Sloan-Kettering, Suzanne Rauffenbart, said yesterday the hospital had received no formal notice that workmen's compensation would be demanded from it and had not heard from Mr. Ellin directly.

Mr. Ellin said the claims in the lawsuits now pending against the surgeon's estate were so large that the amount involved in potential workmen's compensation "pales into insignificance."

The lawsuits, according to Mr. Ellin, involve potentially "untold millions," while compensation might have ranged up to several hundred thousand dollars.

The lawsuits, he added, "require the full attention" of defense lawyers representing the estate, "to the exclusion of anything else."

The estate is represented by William Whiteford of Towson. Mr. Whiteford did not respond to telephone calls yesterday.

Mr. Ellin is not involved in the defense against those lawsuits. He said that the decision to forgo workmen's compensation was his suggestion but that he discussed it with Mr. Whiteford. Mr. Whiteford concurred, he said, as did the surgeon's widow, Betty Almaraz.

The lawyer said he hoped the lawsuits "will be disposed of quickly." If they are, he said, he may yet demand workmen's compensation from the hospital on behalf of Mrs. Almaraz.

He said he still regarded the compensation claims as having legal merit.

Mr. Ellin said Dr. Almaraz had retained him to pursue any claims the surgeon might have against Sloan-Kettering. He no longer is acting as an attorney for Mrs. Almaraz or her family.

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