Hospital bed is central to fire lawsuit

Family blames Hopkins in Howard woman's death

May 11, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Josephine Hill came home from the hospital in the spring of 2004 unable to climb the stairs to her bedroom. At the recommendation of her doctors, her husband, Ian T. Hill, converted the living room into a bedroom, kept a baby monitor at her side and acquired a hospital bed to keep her more comfortable.

The bed, Ian Hill believes, is what killed her.

Hill and his three children are suing Johns Hopkins Home Care Group, the company that provided the electric bed, for $10 million. They allege that the bed's motor ignited in August 2004 and caused a fire that fatally burned Josephine Hill, 65, and destroyed their Ellicott City home. In turn, Johns Hopkins is suing the company it bought the bed from, Sunrise Medical HHG of Carlsbad, Calif., according to court records.

Since Dec. 1, 2003, the Food and Drug Administration has received 59 reports of fires involving electric hospital beds, four of which resulted in death, according to Karen Riley, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Both Sunrise and Hopkins are denying liability in the fire.

"The Johns Hopkins Home Care Group neither assembled nor reassembled the motor parts of the hospital bed" that the Hills assert caused the fire, said Joann Rogers, a spokeswoman for the group's parent organization, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Neil MacDonald, an attorney for Sunrise, the American distributor of the product, said that Hill's attorneys had "submitted nothing to date that would indicate there was any defect in the bed." It is unclear what company manufactured the bed.

Josephine Hill suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Ian Hill, 74, said his wife was exposed to tuberculosis as a child and had been a smoker.

"It got worse and worse," Hill said of his wife's condition, which was diagnosed as COPD about 17 years ago. "As each year went by, she would have various infections."

After Josephine Hill arrived home from Howard County General Hospital, where she had been treated for an infection, the Hills received a bed through Ian Hill's health insurance. On June 29, 2004, a technician arrived several hours late to assemble it in the family's living room, just off the home's two-story foyer, Hill's attorneys allege.

"The technician had trouble assembling the bed, and finally left the Hills' home to obtain additional parts," according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 1, 2006.

The Hills had oxygen equipment installed on the second floor, which pumped air through a tube down the stairs, across the foyer and into the living room.

About 3:45 a.m. on Aug. 24, 2004, Ian Hill awoke to the sound of a fire alarm, rushed downstairs and saw flames consuming the bottom half of his wife's bed. The fire had burned a hole in the floor, he said.

Ian Hill pushed through the smoke in his living room, and scooped up his wife's frail, burning body from the floor beside the bed.

As the house erupted in flames, Hill rested his wife on their front lawn and consoled her during her final waking moments.

Lt. Dean Mulvihill of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services said that the blaze scorched everything in the home but the basement, a rear wall and a screened-in back porch.

"All that was left of some couches was metal springs," he said.

Mulvihill narrowed the fire's origin to the area at the foot of Josephine Hill's bed. He also said that the bed's two motors were the only electrical devices recovered from the area of origin.

Mulvihill, however, would not say that the motors caused the fire, which has frustrated Ian Hill and his attorneys, Susan Amiot and Steven D. Silverman of Baltimore.

Mulvihill explained that once a fire is determined to be accidental, the department has little interest in the specific cause because the information would not lead to criminal charges.

The inquiry also would be costly for taxpayers because it would require Mulvihill to send the bed to a forensics lab for analysis.

"We get as close to the origin and cause as possible," he said. "We're arson investigators, not engineers. We don't take apart motors. And even if we did, we wouldn't be able to tell you what malfunctioned."

Mulvihill said that it's up to victims interested in pursuing litigation to hire forensic engineers to analyze damaged wiring.

Hill's attorneys said they have hired Michael Wald, a private fire investigator and electrical engineer in Annapolis, to do the analysis.

"With a fire, there is sometimes very little to go on, and what our experts have been able to do is eliminate all other sources of ignition," Silverman said. "The only source that they would say has a reasonable degree of engineering certainty is the motor at the foot of the bed."

In 2003, after reviewing more than 90 reports of hospital bed fires in a decade, the Food and Drug Administration released a list of safety tips for preventing them, including directly connecting a bed's power cord into a wall outlet and performing routine testing.

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