Patients seek accountability in hepatitis C outbreak case
Patients at a New Hampshire hospital who were infected with hepatitis C by a traveling medical technician with a drug problem are pleased with his guilty plea but are still pushing to hold others accountable.
David Kwiatkowski, 34, pleaded guilty last week to 16 federal drug charges under an agreement that calls for him to spend 30 to 40 years in prison. He admitted stealing painkiller syringes from hospitals where he worked and replacing them with saline-filled syringes tainted with his blood.
Before he was hired at Exeter Hospital in 2011, Kwiatkowski worked as a cardiac technologist in 18 hospitals in seven states, moving from job to job despite being fired at least four times over allegations of drug use and theft.
“Everyone’s been pointing at Kwiatkowski, and to some extent they should, but what Exeter Hospital is trying to do is hide behind Kwiatkowski and point the finger at him,” said attorney Mark Abramson, who represents 12 patients suing the hospital and others. “That does not absolve them of their responsibility, because no matter how bad of a jerk Kwiatkowski is, the truth of the matter is, it never should’ve gotten to this point.”
Forty-six people in four states have been diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C Kwiatkowski carries. Thirty-two patients were infected in New Hampshire, seven in Maryland, six in Kansas and one in Pennsylvania. Kwiatkowski also worked in Michigan, New York, Arizona and Georgia.
Most of the New Hampshire patients are suing Exeter, the national accreditation organization for radiological technicians and two of the staffing agencies that employed Kwiatkowski. Six cases have been settled in Rockingham County Superior Court, and the remaining 23 are tentatively set to go to trial starting in November 2014, said the hospital’s lawyer, William Dailey.
“The civil litigation is moving along as we anticipated, and we’re hopeful that more matters can be resolved as time passes,” he said.
The hospital has strongly denied allegations that it ignored employee concerns about Kwiatkowski’s alleged drug use, saying he always offered plausible explanations for his appearance and behavior.
According to court documents, Kwiatkowski’s co-workers said he sometimes showed up for work with bloodshot eyes, sweating profusely or foaming at the mouth. In each case, Kwiatkowski cited plausible personal medical issues or family crises, the hospital said.
He claimed to have Crohn’s disease, and when one co-worker complained he looked like he was “on something,” he told a supervisor he had been up since 3 a.m. crying over his aunt’s death.
The hospital notes that Kwiatkowski held the appropriate certification for the job and had been highly recommend by his two previous employers, and it argues the outbreak was caused by a “single health care worker with criminal intent.”
“David Kwiatkowski’s malicious and callous acts deeply violated the trust of patients, providers and employees of Exeter Hospital,” the hospital said last week.
The state Supreme Court on Friday accepted a petition from Maxim Healthcare Services, which employed Kwiatkowski in 2008 and 2009. The company is asking the court to throw out a lower court ruling requiring its employees to travel to New Hampshire to be questioned by lawyers.
Depending on what the court decides, that could further slow the progress of the civil cases, Abramson said. Depositions haven’t been scheduled yet, and the various parties are still wrangling over which documents must be shared, he said.
In the meantime, Abramson said his clients are thankful that federal prosecutors kept them well informed about the criminal case against Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski, whose lawyers have declined repeated requests for interviews, is set for sentencing Dec. 3.
“They all wanted to see this guy hung up by something other than his neck, but they are really happy with what the U.S. attorney’s office has done,” Abramson said.