The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City heard arguments Wednesday in a wrongful death lawsuit over an incident that occurred nearly a decade ago.

Missouri Supreme Court – Image courtesy of Missouri Courts

Timothy Hill, whose father died from complications after falling near the entrance to a St. Louis area health clinic, claims the hospital either intentionally or in bad faith failed to preserve video evidence of the mishap. A jury sided with the hospital, which led to the Supreme Court appeal.

But Hill’s case before Missouri’s high bench is largely a challenge to lower court decisions made before the trial.

He claims to have presented overwhelming evidence that the health provider destroyed the video evidence in bad faith and contends the trial court should have instructed the jury that the video would’ve shown his father’s fall was caused when he tripped on an uneven walkway.

The court declined Hill’s request for those instructions to be given and denied his motion calling for the hospital to admit the video contained incriminating evidence against the business. It also denied Hill’s motion to exclude photos of the area where his father fell that were apparently taken after uneven concrete slabs were removed from the pathway.

Hill’s father, Irvin Hill, fell faced first to the ground while approaching the doors to the facility in early September 2009. He was admitted to the hospital where he suffered an intracranial bleed the same night. He subsequently fell into a coma and died the next month.

The day after his father’s fall, Hill took photos of the area where the mishap occurred. The images appeared to show two concrete slabs that were raised and uneven. That same day, Hill’s mother asked to see the security video footage of the incident, but the staff could not locate it.

The parties disputed whether Hill’s father lost his balance or tripped over the slabs, and were also at odds over why the video no longer existed.

The health provider, SSM Health Care St. Louis, contends the video footage was inadvertently destroyed because of complications with the technology being used at the time of the mishap in 2009.

It points out that the facility where the incident took place, St. Clair Hospital in Fenton, had only been open about five months. It claimed video footage which should have been saved for 10 days ended up being erased after three days because the video system lacked the capacity to store all the various activities being recorded.

St. Louis Attorney Jeffery McPherson, who represented SSM Health Care before the Supreme Court, told the judges that the lower court made the proper decision in denying Hill’s motion for jury instructions.

“There was ample evidence that there never had been any intentional effort to keep this video from being shown to anyone,” said McPherson.

Representing Hill before the high bench was St. Louis attorney Doug Dowd. He dismissed SSM’s claim over the video system’s lack of storage space as hearsay.

Dowd also noted that SSM upgraded its hard drives at the hospital and reformatted them in October 2009, which removed any previous data.

“October 22nd of ’09, seven weeks after this fall and this man’s death…shortly after he died, within a week…they went and had the computer hard drive removed, wiped out, completely eliminated,” said Dowd.

McPherson, arguing for SSM, showed the Supreme Court judges the photos Hill tried to have excluded before the trial. McPherson acknowledged they were taken after the uneven walkway where Hill’s father fell had been leveled out, but noted they included a person who had observed Hill’s father moments before the fall. That person, Dr. Brennen, was pictured in the photos standing in the spot where he’d seen Hill’s father. McPherson then introduced an exhibit which he said indicated that the father was actually beyond the uneven portion of the walkway and up to the doors of the building before he actually fell.

Dowd then rejected that interpretation and pointed out that the photos of Dr. Brennen were taken in April of 2011, the same morning that Brennen gave a deposition about where he observed Hill’s father standing two years earlier.

But McPherson produced notes before the Supreme Court that were taken by the doctor who treated Hill’s father in the hospitals’ emergency room after the fall. The doctor’s notes include the statements, “Patient states he reached for the door but fell” and “Patient says he came to hospital here today to have labs drawn as an outpatient, and when he reached to open the door he fell, striking his head.”

Dowd closed his presentation before the high bench claiming the trial court was wrong to overrule his objection to testimony offered by an expert witness for SSN, Dr. Randall Huss. Dowd noted Dr. Huss said in his deposition that dehydration “could have been” a contributing factor to Mr. Hill’s fall, but altered his opinion in court, saying that Mr. Hill’s fall was likely a result of a preexisting dehydration condition. Dowd said he was wrongly overruled on the “crucial issue in the case”.

By Dowd’s estimate, the litigation which started in 2009 has involved 22 depositions, 50 witnesses and “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. In court documents, he noted the medical bills for Hill’s father had totaled $500,000.

The Supreme Court is now deliberating the case and could hand down a decision at any time.

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