Families settle serial killer nurse lawsuit

February 20, 2008 6:23:33 AM PST
The families of New Jersey patients murdered by serial killer nurse Charles Cullen have reached a settlement with the hospitals where Cullen worked, an attorney representing two of the families said Tuesday.

The confidential settlement with five hospitals was reached Friday after a court-ordered mediation that lasted four days from late January into early February, according to attorney Michael Barrett. The lawsuit was filed in New Jersey Superior Court more than four years ago.

Cullen, who told investigators he might have killed as many as 40 patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to killing 29 people and attempting to kill six others.

He admitted using lethal doses of medications - usually the heart medication digoxin - to kill patients. When he was arrested in 2003, suspected of murdering patients at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, Cullen told authorities he killed "very sick" patients, and described the slayings as mercy killings.

Cullen, 47, is serving a life term in New Jersey State Prison.

"It's a good thing for the families," Barrett said of the settlement. He represents the families of the Very Rev. Florian J.

Gall, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic pastor, and Michael T. Strenko, 21, both of whom died in 2003 at Somerset Medical Center. For the families, he said, the past four years of litigation have been "a constant reminder of their loss."

"With the settlement of the civil case, our hope is that it'll provide them with some sense of closure and that they can come on with their lives," he said.

Barrett said the settlement includes four New Jersey hospitals: St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington and Somerset Medical Center.

St. Luke's Hospital of Bethlehem, Pa., was also involved in the settlement. A judge ruled last year that it could be sued for failing to warn Somerset Medical Center not to hire Cullen, who left St. Luke's in September 2002 after the hospital conducted an investigation into mishandling of medications and told him he could resign or be fired.

Somerset Medical Center released a statement Tuesday expressing hope that the settlement would bring closure to the families of the victims.

"We know this has been a difficult time for all of the families involved and our hearts go out to them," the statement said. "We hope that they will be able to find some sense of closure as a result of these settlement agreements."

Hunterdon Healthcare System spokeswoman Kathleen Seeling confirmed the settlement and said the hospital was "relieved" it was to the families' satisfaction.

Susan Schantz, a spokeswoman for St. Luke's Hospital and Health Network, said Cullen's actions epitomized "the ultimate betrayal of the sacred trust between nurses and patients," but emphasized that the settlement was not an admission of any wrongdoing by the hospital.

The other hospitals involved did not immediately return messages left for comment.