Freddie Clarence Williams was found unconscious from a drug overdose and was taken to a Bronx hospital last July. He was eventually declared brain-dead.

His sister Shirell Powell had been at the bedside daily since his admission and was asked about discontinuing life-support. She notified other relatives including his daughter, Brooklyn, who came from Virginia to say goodbye. After all support was removed, an autopsy by the city medical examiner discovered that the deceased was not Ms. Powell’s brother. How the medical examiner determined what the hospital could not do was not explained.

The family was notified and stopped planning the funeral.

The mix-up occurred because the hospital identified Freddie Williams from his Social Security card. Ms. Powell’s brother, Frederick Williams, had been a patient at the hospital before and the staff assumed the patient was the latter Mr. Williams. Both Freddie and Frederick were 40 years old.

The family is now suing the hospital for causing them distress. Not surprisingly, a spokesman for the hospital said he did not think there was any merit to the claim.

When she first saw the patient, Ms. Powell said she wasn’t sure he was her brother, but he had facial swelling, a neck brace, and a tube in his throat. Her sister thought he looked like their brother.

It turned out that the brother, Frederick, had been incarcerated since July 1 and had not been able to contact the family. When he spoke to his sister from jail, he asked her if she really had decided to kill him. She told him “Once you’re brain-dead, there is nothing to do.”

Ms. Powell said she was having trouble sleeping because she was concerned about the man who died and wondered if he had a family. She said she was thankful that her brother had not died, but she said “I killed somebody that was a dad or brother.”

Here’s my take on this incident.

The hospital staff should have been more diligent in attempting to identify the patient. While similar, the two names—Freddie Clarence Williams and Frederick [no middle name] Williams—are not the same. The hospital knew Freddie was 40 years old. Since he was unconscious on arrival, he could not have told them his age or anything else. When patients have similar names the “go to” way to differentiate them is by their birth dates. The stories about this case do not mention birth dates, but since they knew he was 40, Freddie must have had that information on his person. And they knew Frederick’s birth date because he had previously been a patient there.

For this type of lawsuit, negligence must be proved. I think the hospital is guilty as charged. But negligence is not enough; it must also have caused damage. What is the damage in this case? Frederick’s family was certainly discomfited by the hospital’s actions. However, their brother is alive and well.

Ms. Powell is upset, but her concern about having “killed somebody” doesn’t ring true because as she explained to her brother, when you’re brain-dead, you’re dead.

I predict the hospital will settle the suit for a modest amount of money rather than risk a trial in the Bronx where juries tend to favor plaintiffs with lavish verdicts.

Postscript 1. The New York Post filed its story under the following terms: Brooklyn [Frederick’s daughter’s name and where his sister lives], hospitals, lawsuits, and euthanasia [which did not occur in this case as the patient was brain dead].

Postscript 2. A comment in the story that ran in the Washington Post mentioned the 1972 Curtis Mayfield song “Freddie’s dead” from the movie Superfly. Memorable line: “Freddie’s dead. That’s what I said.”

 

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last 8 years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 3,000,000 page views, and he has over 19,000 followers on Twitter.