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Ala. EMS pays $15M over ‘chaotic and calloused transport’ and patient death

HEMSI stated it will not appeal the decision on the 2019 incident

By Olivia Lloyd
The Charlotte Observer

LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. — A man screamed in pain as an EMT slept during an ambulance transport, and the man later died from damage to his heart, according to an Alabama lawsuit.

A jury has now awarded his wife $15 million.

Gloria Owen’s legal team said that her husband, Robert Owen, was abandoned as his pain rocketed up to nine out of 10 and he suffered a heart attack in the back of the ambulance while an emergency medical technician was “high as a kite.”

She was represented by Marsh | Rickard | Bryan attorneys David Marsh, Rip Andrews, Ben Ford, Richard Riley and Ty Brown, and also assisted by attorney John Totten.

“This company failed at every level, from the very top down, and had multiple opportunities to prevent this from happening,” Marsh said.

McClatchy News reached out to Huntsville Emergency Medical Services, Inc. and the individual defendants’ attorneys for comment on May 29 and did not immediately receive a response.

But HEMSI told that it would not appeal.

“It was a tragic loss of life,” HEMSI told the outlet. “Our greatest desire is to safely serve the citizens who depend on us. When we fail to do this, it impacts many people, including those we serve and those on our HEMSI team. We will continue to learn from every situation and strive to better serve our community.”

‘Yelling for help’

Owen, an 81-year-old military veteran, was a cardiac patient at a hospital in Huntsville and needed to be taken to a hospital in Birmingham for surgery.

Huntsville Emergency Medical Services, Inc. provided that transport on April 23, 2019.

Behind the wheel, at first, was EMT Jacob Steele, who was previously fired and then reinstated after his supervisors received complaints that he was speeding and swerving with a patient in the ambulance, Gloria Owen’s attorneys said in court documents.

Steele showed up to work late the day of Owen’s transport and appeared to be impaired, the attorneys said. His coworker reported him and he was ordered to go to a HEMSI station for evaluation, but he was then released to do his job, according to the court documents.

Steele and a paramedic, Calvin Hui, went to the hospital for Owen’s advanced life support transport, which requires more monitoring than basic life support transport.

At around 6 p.m., the ambulance left the hospital, video from inside the ambulance showed. Steele was nodding off and drifting out of his lane while driving, then Hui asked if he was all right, attorneys said.

Hui decided to trade with him, although the legal team says Hui was the only one trained to provide advanced life support to Owen. Hui called his supervisor to say they switched drivers because Steele was too tired.

The medical staff, including Hui and the supervisor, testified that another ambulance should have been sent to the location because Steele was not qualified to provide Owen with that level of care, according to court documents.

Steele climbed in the back, put in earbuds and fell asleep, attorneys said.

Not long after, Owen suddenly began feeling unprecedented, intense chest pain that radiated from his arm to his jaw, according to the lawsuit.

He began “yelling for help,” but Steele was asleep and Hui was up front driving, attorneys said.

Eventually, Hui heard him, pulled over, and administered medication before returning to the driver’s seat and bringing the ambulance the rest of the way to Birmingham, according to the court documents.

The entire drive is roughly 100 miles.

‘Chaotic and calloused transport’

Steele wasn’t drug tested after the transport, and repeatedly the medical service providers failed to meet the adequate standard of care, attorneys said.

“At every turn, (HEMSI officials) attempted to cover up what happened,” Owen’s attorneys said in court documents. “If it was not for Robert surviving long enough to tell his family what happened, nobody would have known.”

Owen’s condition began to deteriorate by the time he arrived at the second hospital, the legal team said. He was quickly moved to the ICU and died 11 days later.

A doctor documented that Owen died from damage to his heart caused by pre-existing conditions, an earlier heart attack and one he had during the ambulance transport, according to Owen’s attorneys.

The lack of medical care during the “chaotic and calloused transport,” contributed to his death, the legal team said.

On May 23, after a 10-day trial, a jury in Limestone County, Alabama awarded Gloria Owen $15 million, documents say.

“Despite the fact that HEMSI’s entire business is based on providing care to people who are sick or injured, they came to court and callously argued that Robert was going to die anyway,” Ben Ford said. “The jury sent a clear message that this kind of conduct, and that kind of attitude, will not be tolerated.”

The lawsuit named HEMSI, Steele, Hui and two of their supervisors.

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