The parents of a 19-year-old man who died after a snowboarding accident settled with the hospital and organ donation center that they claimed were responsible for his early death for $1.2 million. Michael and Teresa Jacobs alleged that their son had been "intentionally killed at Hamot Hospital so that his organs could be harvested," according to their complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
The defendants "vigorously" denied the allegations, according to court papers.
During preparation for trial this summer, the parties agreed to a settlement and asked the court to proceed under seal.
Following a brief in opposition filed by the Times Publishing Co., U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin of the Western District of Pennsylvania decided to unseal the settlement agreement.
"Because this case involves allegations of wrongful conduct in connection with organ donation, the contents of the judicial record — including the terms of settlement — contain information over which the public has a legitimate interest from a public policy perspective," McLaughlin said in Jacobs v. CORE.
Both sides, the Jacobses and the hospital, had moved to have the settlement sealed. The Jacobses argued, primarily, that they wanted the terms to remain private in order to give them time to heal without media inquiry. The defendants expressed concern that the possibility of misinterpreting the settlement could have a "chilling effect" on organ donations.
"To the extent the parties are suggesting that the settlement might be misconceived as an admission of liability on the part of the defendants, we simply note that the case has been vigorously defended and the defendants have repeatedly and vociferously denied that they engaged in any tortious or wrongful conduct relative to the treatment of the decedent," McLaughlin said.
Regarding the Jacobses’ concern, McLaughlin decided that it should be evaluated in the context of the whole case, which was filed in 2009, two years after their son, Gregory Jacobs, died.
"From the beginning, this lawsuit has engendered considerable publicity, largely as the result of plaintiff’s own allegations that the defendants had engaged in conduct — vigorously denied by defendants — which (if proven) could fairly be described as shocking, sinister, and macabre," he said, explaining that the family has sought news coverage, giving an interview to CBS after they filed their suit.
"Their stated desire for closure, even though understandable, cannot outweigh the public’s considerable interest in disclosure of the terms of settlement," McLaughlin said.
The $1.2 million total in the agreement is to be split between the family, the lawyers and Aetna Health Plans, to cover an outstanding lien.
Just over half of the settlement will go to the family, with $541,000 covering their wrongful death claim and $135,000 covering their survival claim. Attorney fees account for about $505,000 and Aetna is entitled to roughly $19,000.
Also, because Gregory Jacobs was a resident of Ohio, where his family still lives, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue isn’t able to collect an inheritance tax, according to the settlement. Ohio doesn’t tax the proceeds from wrongful death or survivors suits.
Gregory Jacobs had been on a school ski trip to Peek’n Peak Ski Resort in Western New York when he fell and sustained a head injury, according to court papers. From there, he was taken to Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa., where he remained for less than a week before he died.
His father agreed to a do-not-resuscitate order, although his mother had earlier declined one on his behalf, according to their amended complaint. They alleged that medical staff at the hospital and from the Center for Organ Recovery & Education gave their son substandard care so that they could harvest his organs. Ultimately, two doctors removed Gregory Jacobs’ heart, liver and kidneys, according to the complaint.
Dennis Boyle of Boyle Autry & Murphy in Camp Hill, Pa., represented the plaintiffs and declined to comment because the terms of the settlement don’t allow him to discuss it, he said.
H. Woodruff Turner of K&L Gates in Pittsburgh represented the defendants and could not be reached for comment.
(Copies of the nine-page opinion in Jacobs v. CORE, PICS No. 12-2157, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •