The American Association for Justice (AAJ) has presented its prestigious Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award to Rapid City, S.D, attorneys Glen H. Johnson and Gregory A. Eiesland and their clients, Martin, S.D., residents Vernon and Shawnna Gardner, for their roles in pushing for greater patient safety to prevent incidents of medical malpractice.
The Gardners’ son, Owen, died as a result of medical malpractice when he was two.
When Owen became sick with flu-like symptoms and became severely dehydrated, a physician recommended treatment at a health care facility two hours from home. Owen was admitted to the facility but there was no doctor available to see him for an hour. By that time, Owen’s veins had collapsed and the doctor and nurses were unable to start an I.V. Owen stopped breathing. Hospital staff intubated him incorrectly (into his stomach) so that Owen never received oxygen to his lungs. Owen died of dehydration at the hospital.
“What child in the U.S dies of dehydration?” said attorney Johnson. “I get tired of seeing someone die because a hospital hasn’t even performed the minimal amount of care necessary. This case cried out for something to be done.”
The Gardners filed a number of complaints beyond a civil lawsuit. They requested that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) investigate the health care facility where Owen died. They also filed complaints with the state medical association and state nursing board.
CMS audited the health care facility, citing numerous deficiencies and requiring several procedural changes regarding pediatric admissions, alternative procedures to hydrate children when I.V.s fail, the availability of intubation monitors in pediatrics wards, and advanced life-support training for “Code Blue” emergency physicians.
The Gardner’s case settled, and Shawnna and Vernon have not stopped crusading on behalf of better patient care and the rights of patients who turn to the court system to hold wrongdoers accountable. The Gardners have made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to talk to lawmakers about the unfairness of placing a one-size-fits-all cap on permanent, life-altering injuries in medical malpractice cases. The Gardners were in Washington earlier this summer to raise awareness about a federal bill that would limit patients’ rights in order to benefit the insurance industry.
“Instead of capping damages on people with life-altering injuries or those whose spouses or children are killed by malpractice, a better solution would be to more effectively discipline doctors who are repeatedly committing the malpractice,” said Vernon Gardner.
“Another solution is opening up the National Practitioner Data Bank,” said Shawnna Gardner. “All people should know where their doctor was trained, whether he or she has ever been disciplined, ever lost hospital privileges, ever settled a lawsuit for more than $25,000, or ever lost a lawsuit in a jury verdict. Currently, only insurance companies, hospitals, and providers can access this information. The average citizen cannot.”
Greg Eiesland is a partner at Johnson Eiesland Law Firm in Rapid City, South Dakota. He is on the AAJ Board of Governors, is chair of the Disciplinary Board for the State Bar of South Dakota, and is a past president of the South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association and of the State Bar of South Dakota. He has taught at several National College of Advocacy trial schools, including the Ultimate at Harvard University. In 1989, Greg was selected as South Dakota Trial Lawyer of the Year.
Glen Johnson is a partner at Johnson Eiesland Law Firm in Rapid City, South Dakota. For ten years he has been an AAJ state delegate, acting as a liaison between AAJ’s Board of Governors and the South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association. He serves on the Disciplinary Board, Ethics Committee, and Medical-Legal Liaison Committee of the State Bar of South Dakota, and served as President of the South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association from 1988-1989.
The Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award, established in 1997, is given to those attorneys and their clients whose cases tell the story of American civil justice and help educate state and national policy makers and the public about the importance of consumers’ rights. The award is named for Steven Sharp of Richland, Oregon, who lost both arms in 1992 to a defective tractor hay baler.