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Jury To Decide In Medical Malpractice Case Of Teenage Girl Determined To Be Brain Dead

Stephen Pulido, a judge in Alameda County, has cleared the way for a jury to decide an ongoing case involving Jahi McMath. The teenage girl was deemed to be brain dead over three years ago after undergoing surgery to remove her tonsils which had dangerous complications. The jury will be tasked with deciding if the girl is alive or dead, which will determine the family’s ability to recover damages based on medical malpractice. 

California has had a $250,000 limit on awards for non-economic damages including those for pain and suffering in place for many years. There are no limitations on what can be awarded for economic damages, which would pay for continual medical treatment for her costs of care if the jury determines that she is still alive. This hotly debated topic centers on whether a patient found to be brain dead that remains on life-support for an extended period is truly dead.

A death certificate signed by a coroner exists and the girl has been unresponsive and breathing with assistance from a ventilator. Her mother, Latasha Spears Winkfield, says that her religious beliefs prevent her from removing her from life-support. Jahi is currently in New Jersey, which is the lone U.S. state that allows for religious objections in these situations involving brain death. 

The family filed a suit to have her death certificate rescinded and was happy that the judge is allowing a jury to decide. The attorney who represents the family says that they want to have Jahi return to California for continued care. Attorneys for the hospital contend that the family has yet to submit the girl to tests for brain death endorsed by the American Medical Association.

Ms. Spears Winkfield explained that her daughter is still alive and is determined to keep her on life supporting equipment. She has released video footage of Jahi’s fingers and toes moving; however, several medical doctors say that brain dead individuals do sometimes exhibit signs of twitching. The New Jersey Medicaid program has paid for a portion of the medical costs so far, and the family has received generous contributions through fundraising. 

Jahi was found to be brain dead following her surgery when she lost a considerable amount of blood and fell into cardiac arrest. Several doctors have stated that when a patient is left on a ventilator, they usually only survive for a few weeks before enduring circulatory arrest, yet exceptions like this are possible.

Dr. Alan Shewmon, a retired neurologist, stated in court that technically Jahi has shown signs of being alive. The family says that Jahi has shown a reaction to direct exposure to very strong odors. Shewmon is surprised that the girl’s body has not deteriorated and a doctor assigned to monitoring her says she is “minimally responsive” at best. If the jury determines that the girl is alive, the potential amount of economic damages that could be awarded could be massive.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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