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Mother Fighting To Change Florida’s Wrongful Death Rules

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Linda Porter stands next to a large Huggies box filled with $700 worth of her son's medical records and letters to state agencies and attorneys./Photo: Daylilna Miller, Health News Florida

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A Florida law makes it impossible to sue for medical negligence if the person is an unmarried adult with no children. Now a Tampa-area woman wants to change that.

When Linda Porter listens to Foreigner or Styx, she thinks of her own long-haired guitarist, Pete Thomas. Pete, her son, died 12 years ago in a New Port Richey Hospital.

Now, when she attends rock concerts, she imagines Pete’s right there with her in the crowd. “Ah, when I went to see the Moody Blues a few years ago, I was getting ready to leave the house, I was getting dressed and thinking, in my head I’m telling Pete, ‘Guess where we’re going tonight,” she said. “We’re going to go see the Moody Blues. Can you imagine?”

This April, Pete would have turned 50. And Porter said he’s in her thoughts wherever she goes.

Porter said her son was admitted at Morton Plan North Bay Hospital with abdominal pain. The 38-year-old went into respiratory arrest and was put on a ventilator. He died almost six weeks later. Porter accuses the hospital of giving him too much medication.

She wanted somebody to be held accountable. But Florida’s Wrongful Death Act does not allow the parents of adult children to sue for medical negligence. Pete Thomas died unmarried. He didn’t have any children.

“It’s a double whammy thing, this horrible incident happens and you turn around and find out you have no recourse, you have no voice to even admonish the hospital or make things change,” said Porter.

So, last year, Porter started a Petition on Change dot org. She wants to change the law and so far, nearly 15,000 people have signed on saying they think so, too. “My son has been gone now for over 10 years. I certainly can’t sue the hospital now,” said Porter, “but I want the hospital to be forced to respond to deaths like this, to help prevent them again. I just don’t want to see it happen again to anyone else’s family.”

Morton Plant Hospital spokeswoman Beth Hardy said the hospital wants to hear when patients or their families have concerns.
Jay Wolfson is a health law professor at the University of South Florida. He said parents of adult children have few options, but they CAN sue for fraud and abuse under the “Community Standard of Care Act.” They can also file an administrative claim with the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Porter said attorneys told her the case didn’t meet the criteria for fraud and abuse lawsuits. And an administrative claim she filed did get an investigation. But the result she says was unsatisfying.

These kinds of claims are difficult, said Wolfson. “It’s very difficult in the system we use to say ‘I know you did something wrong. I know it in my heart and in my head but I can’t prove it.’ But if you can’t prove it, it’s hard to take it much further,” said Wolfson.

About 94,000 people in the United States die from medical errors every year, said Wolfson, and that’s a lowball estimate. He said it could be as high as two or three hundred thousand.

Henry Valenzula is the Tampa attorney Porter consulted after her son died. He said the Wrongful Death Act needs to be rewritten when it comes to medical negligence. “Parents of deceased adult children in a wrongful death setting would have the right to be claims against any wrongdoer, and other wrong doer, with the exception of health care providers and that does not make sense to me and I’ve not heard a good explanation in 30 years,” said Valenzula.

Porter right now is making plans for Pete’s 50th birthday in April. Twice, she’s honored the day by getting tattoos on her wrists. One says “Pete’s mom” surrounded by hearts. The other says “love” within an infinity loop. “It was so significant to me to have it put on my wrist where I can look at it and touch it every day,” she said.

Valenzula, the Tampa attorney, said about six people like Porter come to him each year, asking to sue for a deceased loved one. But he said it’ll take a similar situation happening to a public figure to change the rules. “I think the only way this law would change is if this terrible situation happened to the adult child of a powerful politician who would have the political clout and influence to pass a law like that,” said Valenzula.

He doesn’t wish that on anyone, and Porter agrees. So for now, she’ll keep collecting signatures until it catches the right person’s attention.

WUSF is a partner with Health News Florida, a statewide collaborative reporting on health care.

Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by AdventHealth.

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