STUART - A Martin County jury this
morning sided with a local hospital in a
closely watched lawsuit surrounding the
private deportation of a brain-damaged
Martin Memorial Hospital officials in 2003 sent Luis Alberto Jimenez, an illegal immigrant, on a chartered flight back to Guatemala after he had run up more than $1.5 million in medical bills in a case that garnered national attention.
Attorneys for Jimenez's guardian, Montejo Gaspar, had asked the jury to find that Martin Memorial acted unreasonable in deporting Jimenez and asked for more than $1 million for his care in Guatemala and punitive damages on top of that.
Jurists rejected their arguments in a verdict returned early this morning, ending about nine hours of deliberations that began Thursday afternoon.
Jurists late Friday had requested to hear for a second time the videotaped deposition from former hospital CEO Dick Harmon. In it, Harmon said he approved Jimenez's transfer because he thought Gaspar's attorneys had exhausted their appeals to a judge's ruling allowing the deportation.
Health care and immigration experts
nationwide have been closely watching the
court action. Lawyers say it may be the first
of its kind and underscores the dilemma
facing hospitals with patients who require
long-term care, are unable to pay and don't
qualify for federal or state aid because of
their immigration status.
Jimenez, now 37, was a Mayan Indian sending money home to his wife and young sons when in 2000, a drunken driver plowed into a van he was riding in, leaving him a paraplegic with the mental capability of a fourth grader. Because of his brain injury, his cousin Gaspar was made his legal guardian.
Under federal law, Martin Memorial was required to care for Jimenez until someone else would take him. Because of his immigration status, no one else would. But hospitals that receive Medicare reimbursements are required to provide emergency care to all patients and must provide an acceptable discharge plan once the patient is stabilized.
Jimenez spent nearly three years at Martin Memorial before the hospital, backed by a letter from the Guatemalan government, got a Florida judge to OK the transfer to a facility in that country. Gaspar appealed.
But without telling Jimenez's family - and the day after Gaspar filed an emergency request to stop the hospital's plan - Martin Memorial put Jimenez on a $30,000 charter flight home early on July 10, 2003.
Weeks later, Jimenez was released from the Guatemalan hospital and soon wound up in his aging mother's one-room home in a remote mountain village.
The case has raised the question of whether a hospital and a state court should be deciding whether to deport someone - a power long held by the federal government.
The lawsuit sought nearly $1 million to cover the estimated lifetime costs of his care in Guatemala, as well as damages for the hospital's alleged "false imprisonment" and punitive damages to discourage other medical centers from taking similar action.
Staff writer Andrew Marra and The Associated Press contributed to this story.