Truth in advertising matters in healthcare. An Alabama hospital recently got that message loud and clear with a $16 million jury award against it. The verdict in the Malatesta vs. Brookwood Medical Center court case also sends a message to healthcare consumers that they have a powerful tool for holding facilities and providers accountable for the promises they advertise.
Caroline Malatesta was swayed, in 2012, by an enticing advertising campaign to switch hospitals for the birth of her fourth child, from one that offered a restrictive model of maternity care to one that claimed to offer autonomy and personalized birthing options. The care that she received during the birth, however, was more restrictive and medicalized than her previous birthplace, and resulted in a permanent injury. She took the hospital to court for fraud and on August 5, 2016, a jury awarded her and her husband $16M. That sum includes punitive damages in the amount of $5M, which were awarded for reckless fraud directly relating to the advertising campaign which promised more natural birthing options.
According to a blog post on the Malatesta’s law firm’s website, the Brookwood Medical Center ads emphasized a mother's choice, individual birthing plans, freedom of movement and even mentioned water births. Yet, when Caroline was in labor there she was not allowed freedom of movement or access to a birthing tub, and she was forcibly restrained by nurses, who held her baby inside her for six minutes until a doctor arrived, causing a type of permanent nerve damage. Reports state that water births had been banned internally in the facility since 2013, yet advertisements still included it as an offering at the time Malatesta filed her suit, nurses had not received special training in managing natural births, and the depositions show that there was not a system in place to alert staff that a patient was planning a natural birth. A nurse reported that the messages about natural birth in the advertisements were not communicated to the staff.
In interviews Malatesta has said that she tried to talk with the hospital administration to get answers about what happened to her, but they were not responsive. "Unfortunately I felt like I didn't get any real answers. And they eventually just shut me out. That was when I realized the only option was litigation," stated Malatesta in one of her interviews posted online. One of the claims the lawsuit alleges is that Brookwood “[marketed] natural birth services without sufficient coordination to ensure that the medical staff and other caregivers were aware of, trained in and committed to providing the services advertised.”
Malatesta reluctantly pursued litigation, but she did so because her injury was so debilitating and expensive. Once the media picked up her story, she heard from other women who had also been duped by Brookwood’s advertising campaign and received poor quality care there. In one article she says, "It's meaningful to me that so many women have contacted me and told me that the verdict was their validation that they never got. That gives meaning to an injury that's hard to come to terms with – a bigger meaning than myself."
In addition to Malatesta and the numerous other women who were drawn in by Brookwood’s false advertising and now feel that justice has been served, other healthcare consumers may benefit from this verdict. As healthcare consumers become better informed about their options, competitive hospital markets may be tempted to use “buzzwords” that appeal to savvy consumers without backing up their claims. Competition between hospitals can be intense in many communities, and marketers may be tempted to tap into the latest healthcare technology and trends being hyped in the media without the staff or facility being able to support that type of care. But, large jury awards like this one put the healthcare industry on notice that they must provide what they promise, or risk being held accountable. Also, cases such as this one set legal precedent, paving the way for other similar cases. The fact is, the legal system is one of the few ways that individuals can sway the actions of large corporations for enforcement of laws and standards of care.
While all healthcare consumers won’t get a piece of the monetary award in this case, they will benefit from the awareness that is raised when a large sum is awarded in a legal case, and they will benefit from the precedent that’s been set for truth in advertising about healthcare services. For those who have suffered injury as a result of the medical decisions they made based on the promises of a healthcare facility that didn’t live up to its promises, this case can serve as a reminder that the legal system can help individuals in getting justice in when dealing with giant corporations.
Michal Klau-Stevens is a professional speaker and healthcare consumer advocate. She is a Past President of BirthNetwork National, a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother. Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on LinkedIn and on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!