Not a day goes by that Linda Porter doesn’t think about her son, Pete Thomas.
“He was a wonderful kid,” Porter said. “He was a very accomplished lead guitarist.”
Thomas toured the country, playing with different bands. He was an accomplished sound technician.
Thomas died when he was 38 in a New Port Richey hospital.
“Not only did I lose my son, but I lost my opportunity to be a grandparent, which is heartbreaking,” Porter said.
Thomas went to the hospital in 2004 for abdominal pain. The doctors treated his pain, Porter said.
“They slammed him with all these medications in an hour and a half,” she said.
Porter, a trained nurse, said all these medications caused her son to go into respiratory arrest.
Pete Thomas (left) died in 2004 after being admitted to a New Port Richey hospital for abdominal pain. His mother Linda Porter wants to sue the hospital for medical negligence, but can't under Florida law.
“Not only overdosed him with one narcotic,” she said. “But other numerous medications that had the side effect of respiratory depression.”
Thomas was resuscitated, but couldn’t breathe on his own. He was on a ventilator and fell into a coma. He never came out of it.
Thomas died weeks later, after his family took him off of the ventilator.
Thomas feels the hospital made an “error in judgment” when treating her son. She wanted to sue the hospital for medical negligence – but found out she can’t.
Since Thomas was 38 years old, he’s considered an adult child in the eyes of the law. Under the Florida Wrongful Death Act, Porter can’t sue a healthcare provider for medical negligence in the death of her son. Thomas was 38, unmarried, and with no children.
“Those parents of that adult child who is not married and does not have children would have no claims to what we could call mental anguish or pain and suffering in the death of their child,” said Henry Valenzuela, a Tampa attorney who is board certified in civil litigation specializing in medical negligence.
Porter went to Valenzuela for help after Thomas died. She wanted to hold someone accountable for his death.
“I really can’t do anything in this setting because the law has carved out an exception,” he said.
Under the Florida Wrongful Death Act, a parent of an adult child can’t sue a healthcare provider for medical negligence resulting in that adult child’s death. The reverse is also the same – an adult child can’t sue a healthcare provider for the death of their parent.
Valenzuela said he gets about 10 cases a year similar to Porter’s case. He said when the law was written, the purpose of the exemption was to help curb health care costs.
“If you excluded just these two classes, that would lead to a reduction in insurance premiums and that would trickle down to a reduction in health care costs,” he said. “I don’t believe that has been proven to be correct and I didn’t think it was true back then.”
Valenzuela thinks the exclusions are unfair.
“Overall, health care is delivered well,” he said. “But, there are times when it is not, and in those instances, where there is truly an error, then most people would have claims."
Except people like Porter.
Porter didn’t give up. She obtained her son’s 700-page medical record and pored over every sheet. She wrote letters to the State Attorney General and to the Governor. She filed complains with the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.
“I filed a lot of letters, I filed a lot of complaints,” Porter said. “I just wanted to be heard. I wanted someone to acknowledge that my son lost his life because of an error in judgment.”
She did get letters back, but they were not satisfying, she said.
So – Porter has turned to the power of the Internet for help. She started a petition on Change.Org called “Allow parents to seek justice for their children's wrongful deaths.” She wants other parents to realize what their options are – and what they aren’t.
“You don’t know about it until it hits you and your family,” she said. “I want people to know about the law and I want some way for hospitals to be held accountable.”
She’s hoping it catches the right person’s attention. Valenzuela said that might be what it takes to enact a change.
“Until that happens, when the legislature changes the law,” Valenzuela said. “People like Linda Porter, they’re not going to have any civil recourse.”