Your Courts, Their Secrets
Wrenching details emerge as cases are unsealed
Seattle Times staff reporters
Two other lawsuits against Group Health have also been improperly sealed in King County Superior Court. The Seattle Times filed motions challenging the need for secrecy and got each file opened this year.
The files tell these stories:
This settlement's a record — but don't tell the public
Two years ago, a medical-malpractice lawsuit against Group Health resulted in a settlement described as a record high. But not one word about the case appeared in the newspapers.
The Times managed to get this file opened in May. Although thin on details, it includes a report from a lawyer who was appointed to protect the interests of an injured child. The lawyer's report, based upon medical records and depositions of doctors and nurses, describes a horrific series of errors:
A baby girl was born at Group Health Eastside Hospital in March 2001 — 7 pounds, 14 ounces, alert and responsive. But the attending nurse failed to take the baby's vital signs "at the specified time," the report says. When she did get to it, the nurse discovered the baby wasn't breathing.
A call for help went out. But, the report says, "no help arrived for approximately 15 to 20 minutes." Eventually a nurse arrived, then a physician. With a breathing tube, hospital staff returned the baby to a pink color.
Then, the report says, a respiratory therapist used a wrong adapter — so that oxygen went into the baby, with no way out. The baby "was literally blown up." Her lungs "hyperinflated" and collapsed, and for about "five to 10 minutes," she was unable to breathe.
The girl wound up with cerebral palsy and "severe and permanent brain damage," the report says.
The girl's parents hired James Bostwick, a San Francisco lawyer and medical-malpractice specialist. The family sued Group Health and, in 2004, negotiated a settlement of $7.8 million. The lawsuit was thereafter sealed.
Bostwick disclosed the settlement on his firm's Web site, calling it a "record" for birth-injury cases in the state. The Web site described the case but didn't say which state it occurred in, or name any of the parties.
When the file was opened this year, an audiotape of a crucial hearing also became available. The tape shows that the lawyers and judge dispatched with the issue of whether to seal the file in about 30 seconds.
Gerald Tarutis, the lawyer appointed to represent the child's interests, told Judge Helen Halpert that he wanted only those documents related to the settlement to be sealed. But the written order he presented — and which the judge signed — contained no such limitation. It sealed everything. This order was also signed by lawyers for the girl's family and Group Health.
Documents in the court file do not explicitly identify the respiratory therapist in this case. And since neither side would discuss the lawsuit, the therapist's identity could not be confirmed.
A mother takes castor oil
in hopes of saving her life
When Lori Mumford sued Group Health in May 1999, she was already dying from a type of skin cancer. Her lawsuit alleged that Group Health had several opportunities to save her but bungled every chance.
In March 1998, Mumford, a Bremerton mother of three, went to Group Health complaining of lumps on her lower back, the lawsuit says. She feared cancer and wanted to know if she was OK to get pregnant again.
But a physician didn't examine her. A physician assistant did. The assistant made a diagnosis of "contusion, spinous process" — meaning back bruises, essentially — and cleared Mumford to have another child, the lawsuit alleges.
Mumford became pregnant soon after — only to then be diagnosed with cancer.
Her pregnancy prevented chemotherapy or radiation, for fear of harming the child. So Mumford entered an awful race, hoping her baby could grow and be delivered before her cancer metastasized.
To increase Mumford's chances of survival, one Group Health doctor recommended that labor be induced around Thanksgiving — when Mumford would have been about 32 to 34 weeks pregnant. But communication between Mumford's physicians broke down, the lawsuit alleges. Unable to persuade another doctor to deliver early, Mumford took castor oil in hopes of inducing labor, the lawsuit says.
The baby, a boy, was ultimately born on Dec. 19, 1998. But by then, the lawsuit says, the cancer had spread to Mumford's brain and internal organs.
In what time she had left, Mumford took her children to Disneyland and Disney World, and engraved presents to be given to them on special occasions, such as 16th birthdays and wedding days.
She died in June 2000, at the age of 38.
The month before, Group Health settled the lawsuit for $1 million.
The agreement said the parties would work together to seal the file, court records show. Court Commissioner Marilyn Sellers signed a sealing order, even though it offered no explanation for secrecy, as required by law.
The Times got the file opened this spring — six years after it was improperly sealed.
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