Mother Fighting To Change Wrongful Death Rules

Feb 10, 2016

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. When Porter attends rock concerts now, 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? We're going to go see the Moody Blues. Can you imagine? (Moody Blues lead singer and guitarist) Justin Hayward, we're going to see Justin Hayward,' ” Porter said.

This April, Pete would have turned 50.

“I take him with me, in my thoughts, wherever I go, and try to live a little bigger, better life,” Porter said.

Porter said her son was admitted at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital with abdominal pain in October 2004. The 38-year-old was there less than 24 hours before he 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.

"They never did find out exactly what was causing the pain because within 48 hours, they had overdosed him with 5 different medications that cause respiratory depression, every single one of them,” Porter said.

She questioned hospital administrators and nurses, she consulted an attorney and sent letters to every Florida politician and state agency she knew of. But little happened.

"I can't think of anyone I didn't send letters to,” Porter said.

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,” Porter said. “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."

A screenshot of Linda Porter's petition at the time of publication.

So Porter started a petition on She wants to change the law, and so far, nearly 15,000 people have signed on saying they agree.

"My son has been gone now for over 10 years,” Porter said. “I certainly can't sue the hospital now. 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 North Bay Hospital spokeswoman Beth Hardy said the hospital wants to hear when patients or their families have concerns.

“We do understand that there may be times patients and their families have questions about their care,” Hardy said. “We’re committed to excellence in patient care and part of that is being open to questions and taking them seriously.”

Jay Wolfson, a law professor at the University of South Florida, 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 said, was unsatisfying.

Wolfson said families in this situation have a high bar to meet.

"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,’” Wolfson said. “But if you can't prove it, it's hard to take it much further."

He said about 94,000 people in the United States die from medical errors every year, and that's a lowball estimate. He said it could be as high as 200,000 or 300,000.

Henry Valenzuela, the Tampa attorney Porter consulted after her son died, said he couldn't help her. He said the Wrongful Death Act needs to be rewritten when it comes to medical negligence.   

"Parents of a deceased adult child in a wrongful death setting would have the right to be claims against any wrongdoer, any 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 (for it) in 30 years,” Valenzuela said.

Right now, Porter 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" with musical notes forming a heart. 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,” Porter said.

Valenzuela, 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,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzula said he doesn't wish that on anyone, and Porter agrees , so for now, she'll keep collecting signatures on until it catches the right person's attention. 

--Daylina Miller is a reporter with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.