Five years after wife’s death, Air Force settles with sergeant
By BRYAN MITCHELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 19, 2006
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Tech. Sgt. Brian Garcia is looking toward the future after a 20-year Air Force career.
But a recent bittersweet victory over the Air Force legal and medical establishment has forced the 48th Fighter Wing fire safety inspector to reflect on a painful past.
For three years, Garcia pursued a legal claim against the service after his wife, Tracy, died five days after routine surgery at the RAF Lakenheath hospital. Her death left Garcia to care for their four children on his own.
The Air Force ultimately granted a six-figure settlement to Garcia, though the service didn’t admit negligence in his wife’s death. Neither Garcia nor the service would release the exact amount of the settlement.
Now, the 39-year-old Colorado native wants to share his story.
“I’m just finally happy that we’ve come to a close, even though they won’t accept accountability. For the last three years it’s just sat there lingering,” Garcia said. “That’s the whole reason I have done this, so that people know that there are options out there.”
Garcia’s ordeal began in the spring of 2001, when he and Tracy rented an inflatable castle for a celebration. Tracy injured herself when she tripped on the castle and, in October, surgeons from the RAF Lakenheath Hospital repaired a tear to her anterior cruciate ligament.
According to Garcia’s claim, hospital technicians failed to give her an anti-coagulant to help clot her blood, even though Garcia said he reminded doctors that her pre-existing medical conditions required it. Physicians also worked without her medical records, which were lost in the family’s move from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
Garcia, who met his British wife while serving at the now-closed RAF Woodbridge, cared for his immobile wife following the surgery. Twelve days after he wheeled her out of the hospital, on Oct. 27, 2001, Garcia rushed his wife to the emergency room when she complained of severe abdominal pain. Two days later she had surgery to remove stones from her gall bladder. Again, according to the claim, she was discharged without anti-coagulation therapy.
Five days later, she collapsed and died on her living room floor. A week later, her medical records turned up.
Tracy’s death was tied to a massive pulmonary embolism and thrombosis of the leg vein, a result of a blood clot due to the lack of anti-coagulation therapy, according to Garcia’s British attorney.
Soon after his wife’s death, Garcia received a letter from then U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander Gen. Gregory S. Martin, extending official condolences. His unit changed his schedule and squadron members reached out to assist his shattered family.
A retired chief master sergeant managing Garcia’s unit informed him that he had the option of filing a claim.
“He sat me down and said that I can do this if I want; that it was a real option,” Garcia said. “That gave me the courage to step forward.”
Three years after the negligence claim was filed, the government settled.
“I wouldn’t go as far to say it is an admission of liability,” said Sharon Allison, who handled the case for the Thetford-based medical negligence specialist firm Kester Cunningham John. “It’s simply a settlement.”
But the settlement did not come easy.
Allison began representing Garcia. She worked with a team of medical experts over a year to gather evidence that Tracy’s death was due to negligence by the 48th Medical Group. The attorney filed the claim with the 48th Legal Office on April 29, 2003. Weeks rolled into months that yielded to years as they waited for a resolution.
“It’s been one of the most frustrating experiences of my career dealing with the Air Force on this matter,” Allison said, referring to dozens of unreturned phone calls and e-mails.
On Aug. 22 this year, the Air Force legal claims headquarters in Washington, D.C., alerted Allison that Garcia would receive an “undisclosed six-figure settlement.”
U.S. Air Force chief of medical law branch Hilde Perlstein, who declined to speak about the specifics of Garcia’s claim, said his wait is not unique.
“I understand Sgt. Garcia’s concerns. It did take a long time to investigate,” Perlstein said. “For a medical malpractice case, that is not uncommon.”
Garcia said he understands why he had to wait, based on his experience with the Air Force.
“With what the U.S. government is doing all over, I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of manpower,” he said. “It’s not an excuse for them not returning phone calls, but I can understand how things get backed up with a lack of people.”
Garcia plans to retire in the coming weeks, but he said the settlement fight was a distasteful way to end a 20-year career. And through it all, Garcia never received anything close to an apology from a single uniformed official.
“It still does leave a sour taste in my mouth,” he said. “With everything going on in Iraq and everywhere else, I hope we (the Air Force) are treating the others better than I was treated.”
48th Medical Group behind in malpractice claims
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — There have been 27 medical malpractice claims filed against the 48th Medical Group since 2000, according to statistics provided by the 48th Judge Advocate’s Office. Of those, 16 remain open and unresolved, seven claims have been denied and one case has been transferred to another agency.
“We try to resolve these matters as quickly and as fairly as possible, but we don’t always meet that goal,” said 48th Fighter Wing Judge Advocate General Lt. Col. James Byrne.
Seven of the 27 cases have been officially closed with payments made to the claimants, according to the legal office. Among those was a six-figure settlement with Tech Sgt. Brian Garcia. Garcia’s wife, Tracy, died after surgery in 2001.
The 48th Fighter Wing public affairs office wouldn’t release details of any of the other 26 claims filed against the medical group, but did say Garcia’s was the only claim related to a post-operative death since 2000.
A Wing spokesman said they could not release any further information on the claims due to legal restrictions, such as the Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Byrne said his office conducts investigations into the claims and that members of the medical staff can be disciplined if their actions are found to be negligent. However, the 48th Fighter Wing public affairs office and Byrne would not say whether any medical staff members had been disciplined for medical negligence.
“Short of a court-martial, any other discipline is protected by privacy concerns,” Byrne said.
— Bryan Mitchell