Special Report: Infant Abductions

Liability risk even though baby abducted at home

The infant abduction in Lubbock, TX, didn't happen until the baby had been discharged and was at home with her mother, so what's the potential liability for the hospital?

Plenty, replies Barry Mangels, CPHRM, director of risk management and compliance at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

The liability for the hospital can be huge, even if it doesn't take place in the hospital, Mangels says. "Whether you could be sued successfully for your involvement in an off-site abduction remains to be seen, but it's a certainty that this is nothing you want to be involved in from a risk management standpoint," he says. "You just don't want your name associated with the abduction of an infant born at your hospital."

Mangels says he would not be surprised if a plaintiff's attorney found a way to successfully argue liability when the abductor first gained access to mother and child at your facility. But before that even becomes an issue, your hospital suffers a terrible blow to its public image when every media report of the kidnapping includes a description of how the abductor mingled with staff and patients in the newborn unit.

Loss of goodwill is a huge risk factor for hospitals, Mangels says. "What would this news do to your labor and delivery program? Nobody would want to deliver their babies there," he says. "The liability can be far greater than just a civil suit."

A. Kevin Troutman, JD, an attorney with the law firm of Fisher & Phillips in New Orleans, notes that such an incident also puts the hospital at risk for more lawsuits in the future. Even if no lawsuit arises from the off-the-premises abduction, the involvement and media exposure will create an atmosphere in which patients are more likely to sue, Troutman says.

It makes people more sensitive, he says. "People are looking more carefully, more skeptically and critically at anything that happens," Troutman says. "They've heard about the past incident, and it just encourages people to respond in a negative way to their own situation."

'Code Pink' drills a good idea

To avoid that outcome, Mangels advises risk managers to ensure the hospital has a comprehensive program to prevent infant abductions. Security precautions should include high-tech solutions such as wrist or ankle bands on infants that set off alarms at exit points, as well as video cameras to monitor the unit, Mangels says. Another key element is the drill in which you rehearse how you would respond to an infant abduction. Often known as a "Code Pink," this scenario should be planned and practiced regularly, he says.

At Good Samaritan Hospital, the staff periodically runs a Code Pink drill by giving an infant-sized doll to someone posing as the kidnapper, and then — without any warning to the staff, even those on the neonatal unit — the facility's public address system announces the Code Pink. That alarm sends designated staff to all exits of the hospital, and their duty is to prevent anyone from leaving, especially with a child or anything that could conceivably conceal an infant.

"We once gave the doll to our CEO to see if they would challenge him," Mangels says. "He tried walking out with the doll in his big brief case, and they did stop him. A big part of the drill is convincing people to take this seriously, to challenge every person who could be taking that baby out of the hospital."