Health & Medicine

Hospital images purposely lost, says judge

The Manchester hospital accused of having a hidden camera in a room where employees changed clothes failed to preserve crucial evidence in its lawsuit, a circuit judge has ruled.

The decision involves a computer hard drive that captured images from the camera.

Circuit Judge Oscar Gayle House said the hospital's response to demands for information from the hard drive should be named for a Civil War general: "Stonewall" Jackson.

House ruled that the hospital willfully allowed data on the hard drive to be overwritten, even after the people suing the facility demanded that it be preserved.

"The only logical conclusion that the court can draw is that the defendants made a conscious decision not to forensically preserve the hard drive that was the most important piece of evidence in the case," House said in an opinion issued March 2.

House hammered the hospital and other defendants, saying he would bar them from using some defenses and make them pay some fees and expenses of the people suing the facility.

House also said he would allow some information to be presented to jurors as fact even without images from the camera, including that some employees of the hospital saw others changing clothes and in various stages of undress multiple times.

The ruling will be "tremendously helpful" to the people suing the hospital, said one of their attorneys, Christopher J. Shaughnessy of Lexington.

"This is the only way to level the playing field" after the hospital failed to preserve evidence, Shaughnessy said.

Attorneys for the hospital and other defendants could not be reached Friday.

Two women, operating-room nurse Angel Edwards and nurse anesthetist Terry Nitz, filed the lawsuit in July 2007.

The lawsuit is against Manchester Memorial Hospital; chief officer Dennis Meyers; four other employees, including security chief Lee Wilson; Adventist Health System Sunbelt, which owns the hospital and is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church; and unidentified employees.

The lawsuit said that for years, male and female hospital workers had changed clothes in an anesthesia office adjacent to two surgical suites.

On March 30, 2007, Edwards and her husband, Dr. Dana Edwards, noticed a hole in the office's ceiling panel, moved the panel and found a hidden camera, the lawsuit said.

Soon after, Meyers had someone tell the Edwardses that if they sued the hospital, they could lose their staff privileges at the hospital, the lawsuit alleged.

The hospital also terminated Nitz's contract in retaliation after her complaints about the camera and about not getting the same pay as a male staffer who was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the lawsuit alleged.

The hospital and other defendants have denied wrongdoing. A trial is scheduled for September.

About a month after the digital camera was discovered — and before the lawsuit was filed — attorneys for Edwards and Nitz notified the hospital to preserve information from the hard drive and described how to do that, House said in his ruling.

Ultimately, however, a computer expert concluded the hospital kept the hard drive in service for months and didn't make a proper copy, instead allowing the data on it to be overwritten, House said.

As a result, there's no way to determine what images were recorded to the hard drive from the camera at issue in the case, who looked at them or how often, according to House's ruling.

That conclusion came after a number of hearings, attempts to analyze the hard drive at computer labs in Kentucky, Ohio and California, and delays by the defendants in providing information, according to House's order.

The defendants' "reprehensible" conduct cost the plaintiffs money and wasted court resources, House said.

The judge also said he wasn't buying the hospital's argument that it would have been disruptive to take the hard drive out of service to copy it.

The hospital copied information from 17 other hard drives with no problems before the lawsuit was filed, but not from the one that held information critical to the case, House noted.