CLEVELAND - Research by some of the nation's most respected physicians documents an alarming increase in medical malpractice lawsuits related to hospital patients being found "Dead in Bed."
An exclusive News 5 Investigation revealed the deadly phenomenon where patients who have undergone successful surgery and who are recovering in their own rooms on a general floor where risks are judged to be the absolute lowest - die suddenly and unexpectedly, often within hours.
The use of opioid painkillers - widely used in hospitals nationwide - suppress the respiratory system to critical levels, depriving the brain of oxygen and are believed to play a significant role in the rising number of "Dead in Bed" cases.
Medical experts estimate at many as 50,000 patients have been impacted over the last ten years--many resulting in death and serious brain injury.
Meanwhile, a review of cases involving respiratory depression found cases "resulting in death or serious injury occur at a concerning rate."
A team of doctors reviewing lawsuits found payouts can reach more than $7 million.
Another analysis by doctors found "the vast majority" of malpractice claims are "preventable."
Our investigation found "Dead in Bed" cases can be reduced by employing what is known as continuous electronic monitoring of a patient's oxygen level.
But we found, very few hospitals nationwide employ the technology that is readily available.
Here in Ohio, Summa's Akron City Hospital is facing a medical malpractice lawsuit alleging it was negligent in a case involving a patient who's respiration dropped to critical levels--resulting in brain injury.
Marty Schmidt said he was faced with the painful decision to remove his wife from life support.
"We just want answers, we don't want anyone else to go through this," said Schmidt.
Paul Perantinides is pursing the case on behalf of the Schmidt family and says "there is no question in my mind" that similar lawsuits are costing hospitals across the country hundreds of millions of dollars to defend.
"I think a major problem," says Perantinides, "that when somebody is found dead in bed, there isn't some explanation."
"We can stay away from fault - just an honest to goodness, objective explanation of what happened, rather than ignoring it.
Summa declined to comment on ongoing litigation but did confirm that it does not provide continuous electronic monitoring for all surgical patients - in every room, including the general floor - as a routine practice.
The hospital released a statement saying "all surgical patients are monitored via multiple techniques, including pulse ox, for the entirety of their operative and recovery phases. When leaving the surgical area, patients are monitored based on their individual clinical needs and in conjunction with national medical guidelines and standards of care".
And while it has not invested in blanket monitoring of every patient after surgery on general floors, our investigation found it has invested in something else.