FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – A state senator who works as a doctor is accused of malpractice in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died less than an hour after being treated by him at a local emergency room.
And now the woman’s mother – who is suing Dr. Tyler Johnson, senator for Indiana’s District 14 – is mired in legal proceedings her attorneys claim is being held up with unnecessary delays as Johnson and other defendants continuously fail to find experts who will testify that they provided appropriate care.
She is also raising her daughter’s son, who was only five months old when her daughter died.
“I would love to have this be over with,” said Jennifer Becerra, of Fort Wayne, who filed the suit against Johnson as well as Parkview Regional Medical Center and Professional Emergency Physicians this past May.
Attorneys for the locally owned Manges Law Firm are handling her case.
“It’s never going to be behind me, but to have this done and over with would be so great, because it’s hard to continue to drag this on and go over it again and again,” Becerra said. “It’s frustrating.”
Johnson, a Republican elected to represent parts of Allen and DeKalb counties in District 14, defended his care in a statement he sent to Nexstar’s WANE.
Officials for Parkview Health and Professional Emergency Physicians, which employs Johnson, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Becerra took her daughter, Esperanza Umana, to the emergency room at the Parkview Regional Medical Center one night in 2018 with “respiratory infection, a history of asthma and signs of sepsis,” according to the lawsuit.
In an interview with Nexstar’s WANE, Becerra said her daughter had a 105-degree fever, trouble breathing and had developed purple dots on her face.
Johnson sent the following statement to Nexstar’s WANE on Wednesday regarding the lawsuit:
“Litigation is a complicated process with many variables, and emergency medicine can be difficult even under the best of circumstances,” Johnson wrote in a text message. “We believe the standard of care was met and intend to defend the care. We will accept the outcome.”
Umana’s respiratory distress became exacerbated when Johnson and the emergency room staff overloaded her lungs with four liters of fluid and “violated the standard of care by prematurely discharging Esperanza from the emergency department in unstable condition,” according to court documents filed in the lawsuit.
Umana collapsed in a Walgreen’s parking lot while with her mother 20 minutes after being released from the hospital, according to court documents.
The two were trying to pick up medications prescribed to Umana, according to the lawsuit. Umana’s son was a baby at the time. Now 5 years old, he is being raised by Becerra.
“He knows his mom is in heaven and we just get through every day together,” Becerra said. “He’s the reason I’m still standing.”
A medical review panel last year unanimously ruled that Johnson and the Parkview “failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care” in treating Umana, according to court documents.
The medical review panel, which consisted of three emergency room doctors, found that Johnson and the hospital’s conduct “was a factor in the resultant damages,” court documents said.
After the medical review panel ruled against Johnson and Parkview, Becerra’s attorney asked that the Allen Superior Court judge overseeing the proceedings for a summary judgement – essentially, the attorney asked the judge to rule in their favor without a trial.
Court rules allow for defendants to file responses against calls for summary judgment, and lawyers for Parkview and Johnson have asked multiple times for extensions in gathering information and conducting depositions with witnesses and experts, according to court documents.
A hearing is currently set for April in which lawyers for Johnson and Parkview are supposed to argue against a summary judgment.
Recently, lawyers for Parkview and Johnson filed another motion requesting for another extension – the fourth such time they have done so.
This sparked an objection from one of Becerra’s lawyers last week.
Terry Kaiser Park, one of the lawyers representing Becerra, lambasted the defendants in court documents for requesting yet another extension a year after the medical review panel ruled against them.
“The defendants have had more than a reasonable amount of time to find an independent expert,” Park wrote. “It’s now mid-March, 2023, and Defendants have yet to find a single expert to provide testimony that the Defendants complied with the appropriate standard of care under the circumstances.”
Park also noted in court documents that a unanimous medical review panel opinion in favor of the patient occurs in less than 18 percent of all cases that go through the medical review panel process in Indiana.
She wrote in court documents that the process is “heavily stacked” in favor of hospitals, so that when a ruling favors a patient comes about a settlement should be resolved promptly.
“Plaintiff respectfully requests this Court deny the Defendants any further extensions to respond to summary judgment,” Park wrote. “The negligent actors need their feet held to the fire so the case gets settled. The Court should enter summary judgement for Plaintiff and against Defendants for failing to designate any evidence that creates an issue of fact, despite months of litigation and months of pending summary judgment.”
And while the case winds through the legal system, Becerra said she’s had to watch as Johnson has become a public figure, seeing his face on the news and name in headlines. Her case came up once during Johnson’s campaign for senator.
When asked about the lawsuit by a reporter for The Journal Gazette, Johnson said every physician faces medical malpractice accusations and is quoted as saying:
“You can talk to any physician, medical malpractice happens.”
That quote is something Becerra can never forget.
“How heartless can you be making that statement,” she said. “There are families behind this. There’s a child behind this. To make such a blanket statement, it makes me look at him in a different light.”
Monday, the judge handling the case ruled that all parties need to appear in court on March 28 where lawyers for Parkview and Johnson can argue why they need more time to prepare.
So, Becerra waits for a settlement, which she would consider some form of justice – though it could never make up for the loss of her daughter. A daughter she described as having a big heart while looking forward to a future that included college and raising her son.
A son who is at an age now where he wonders about his mother.
“This little boy is at home asking questions about his mama,” Becerra said. “He doesn’t know her voice. He’ll never get to know that. He’ll never get to have her tuck him into bed, things that little boys need and deserve.”