Largest U.S. hospital owner accused in lawsuit of endangering staff during coronavirus pandemic

Monique Hernandez registered nurse at Riverside community hospital is overcome with emotions during a memorial and candle light vigil for Hollywood Presbyterian Nurse Celia Marcos who died two days after testing positive for Coronavirus at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Keith Birmingham | MediaNews Group | Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Four hospital workers and their union sued the largest hospital chain in the country Thursday, accusing HCA Healthcare and one of its hospitals of endangering staff and patients by violating federal coronavirus guidance on protective equipment in hospitals.

The suit alleges that management at Southern California’s Riverside Community Hospital, which is owned by HCA, failed to provide workers with adequate protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, and pressured staff to ignore safety precautions to meet quotas. The hospital also failed to alert staff to possible Covid-19 exposures and pressured staff, who had Covid-19 symptoms, to return to work, the suit says.

The hospital “failed to take reasonable and necessary precautions to protect their employees, patients, visitors, and the community from the harmful effects of COVID-19, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus and putting the surrounding community at an unnecessarily heightened risk of infection,” the suit says.

It marks the first case brought against a national healthcare company that says the hospital “recklessly facilitated the spread of COVID-19,” according to the Service Employees International Union, which initiated the suit on behalf of its 97,000 members. The case was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California.

Riverside Community Hospital said in a statement to CNBC that it disputes the claims in the suit, adding that “we will defend it vigorously.”

“No one takes the health and safety of our workers more seriously than we do, and since day one, our top priority has been to protect them – to keep them safe and keep them employed – so they can best care for our patients,” a spokesman for the hospital said. “Any suggestion otherwise ignores the extensive work, planning and training we have done to ensure the delivery of high quality care during this pandemic.”

The four individuals named as plaintiffs in the suit include three hospital workers who were infected with Covid-19 and one whose mother, also an employee of the hospital, died of Covid-19, according to the suit.

“These individuals also believe they unknowingly spread the disease to family members or others in the community,” the suit says. “Each of the individual Plaintiffs is a member of a racial minority group, making them statistically more likely to contract COVID-19, and more likely to suffer serious symptoms, including death.”

The suit alleges that the “policies and practices” of the hospital “created or substantially assisted in the creation” of a public nuisance violation. The suit also says the hospital was negligent. 

The hospital caused “substantial, life-threatening harms to the health and safety” of the workers as well as to the community, the suit reads. It also “led to the death of a worker from COVID-19, depriving her family of future economic and non-economic benefits.”

Hospital management allegedly pressured one plaintiff, Ray Valdivia, into working despite exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, the suit says, adding that Valdivia tested positive for Covid-19 “hours after finishing this shift.” Over a month after Valdivia initially tested positive for Covid-19 and was still experiencing symptoms, he was directed to return to work unless he tested positive for the virus again, the suit says. It adds that Valdivia got tested, worked one shift, and then received the second test results, which showed a positive reading.

The hospital and corporate parent “fell far short of the CDC recommendations,” the suit says, adding that some hospital workers were “verbally abused” by supervisors for requesting masks and face shields.

The suit follows a similar suit filed by the New York State Nurses Association in April when hospitals across New York and especially New York City were overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients. The two suits are among the first major legal actions taken by frontline hospital workers in the U.S. against their employers since the start of the pandemic.

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