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Lawsuit Against New Orleans Hospital Settles Shortly After Trial Begins

Settlement of a class-action lawsuit just days after jury selection began averts a trial that could have brought to light new details of a case that has transfixed New Orleans.

Tenet Healthcare has settled the class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of people trapped in Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The amount was not immediately announced.

The agreement came days after jury selection began and averts a trial that was expected to bring to light new details about Tenet's dealings with Memorial during the hurricane and its aftermath.

The bodies of 45 patients were found at Memorial after the August 2005 storm. Some doctors subsequently acknowledged that they had hastened the deaths of patients by injecting them with drugs. No criminal charges were ever brought and the medical staff said they had done their best under extraordinary conditions.

The suit against Tenet, the corporate parent of Memorial, alleged that the hospital had failed to plan for the care for or evacuate patients during a disaster that was overwhelming but foreseeable.

"This has been a long and difficult situation for all concerned, but the parties are pleased to be able to announce that an amicable resolution has been reached subject to court approval at a later date," Rick Black, director of communications for Tenet Healthcare in Dallas said in a statement issued this evening.

"It was surprising. I wasn't expecting it," said Mark Glago, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs. "We think the clients will definitely be happy."

The case began this week with several hours of jury selection. In a show of hands, only 9 of an initial 30 jurors said they would not have a problem serving for four to six weeks when asked by Orleans Parish civil district court Judge Rosemary Ledet. Thirteen potential jurors were dismissed after the first day of questioning. Among those who remained were a nurse who had worked at Memorial Medical Center but had left before the storm.

On Tuesday, attorneys for defendants raised the possibility of moving for a change of venue after what they termed inflammatory statements by plaintiffs' attorney Joseph M. Bruno, who was interviewed by local television news stations about the temperatures inside the hospital after the air conditioning systems failed. "Judge, you told us not to sensationalize this," defense attorney Tony Clayton told Ledet. "These guys think we cooked people to death."

Only four of the first 30 jurors to be questioned said that they had seen that story, but many said they knew of the events at Memorial from prior news coverage. "I think everyone's heard of it, but I don't know any specifics," said 67-year-old Mervin Barrow, a retiree from New Orleans.

Mark LeBlanc, one of the plaintiffs named in the class action, said he and his wife, Sandra LeBlanc, left work and went to the cemetery to put flowers on his mother's grave after being told by the attorneys that the case had settled.

"Mom can rest in peace now, and we will never have to tell this story again," he said. LeBlanc's mother was a patient at LifeCare, a long-term acute care hospital that leased space at Memorial, and died several days after being evacuated from the hospital. Mark LeBlanc said he settled a separate case against LifeCare for more than $200,000, a fact he was compelled to disclose in pre-trial proceedings.

LeBlanc said he hopes the case sends a signal to health care companies to plan better for future disasters.

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