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Florida’s medical malpractice law: Who does it actually protect?

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — A Lake County family believes a mistake made during what should have been a routine medical procedure for their adult, special needs son, led to his death; but because he had no spouse or kids, they have no recourse under Florida law.

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9 Investigates has told you about Florida’s so-called ‘Free Kill Law’ before. It limits who can sue in a medical malpractice case. Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray looked into this family’s case and asked why efforts to change the law failed again this year in Tallahassee.

For 39 years, Clinton Crews relied on his family, but they leaned on him just as much.

“He taught me so much about love, and patience and kindness, and just, made me see the beauty in just so many things,” stepmother Marta Crews said.

Marta said her stepson loved horses. They even adopted a horse for equine therapy to help with his cerebral palsy and seizure disorder.

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Now, she tends to the horses alone. Medical records show her stepson was admitted to the hospital on March 20 for breakthrough seizures, a fever and a malfunctioning of his feeding tube. The notes show the plan was to replace the tube the next day, but complications kept Clinton there longer. Six days in, the records show Marta raised concerns about staff feeding her stepson through the wrong port of his tube; something she says led to vomiting, and eventually, aspiration pneumonia.

Clinton had to be intubated and ultimately moved to the intensive care unit, and he never made it home.

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“Do you think if they had fed him correctly, done the nourishment correctly, not in the wrong port, that he would be here today?” Karla Ray asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Marta Crews said.

The family’s belief will never be tested in court. Under what’s known as Florida’s “Free Kill Law,” only surviving spouses or children under the age of 25 can seek damages for a medical malpractice-related wrongful death.

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There is no provision for family of adults with special needs who were never married or had children of their own.

“Any time you single out a group of people for a particular reason, and you take away rights, I think that you’re telling them that they’re not as important,” attorney Ron Gilbert said. “And that’s not right, and it’s not fair, but it’s the law.”

Attorney Ron Gilbert specializes in medical malpractice. He believes powerful lobbying efforts on behalf of insurance companies and hospitals have kept efforts to reform Florida’s wrongful death and medical malpractice laws from passing.

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The most recent effort this year would have removed language that prohibited adult children and parents of an adult child to seek damages in medical negligence suits, but the bill never made it out of committee, even with initial bipartisan support.

For the Crews, left with hospital bills and questions, they want to see the law change and someone to stand up for the son who couldn’t speak for himself.

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Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book introduced the proposed change to the law this legislative session, and issued this statement about our story:

“Families should be able to seek accountability when a loved one dies in a wrongful death. Unfortunately Florida arbitrarily and unrealistically narrows who can sue in these cases. This is wrong – no matter who you are or who you leave behind, Florida law should apply to and protect all Floridians equally. Our current laws do not reflect that families come in all shapes and sizes – and family doesn’t stop when you become an adult. These current carve-outs leave families of adult children and parents suffering in cases of medical malpractice. Unfortunately, the bill was not heard during this year’s session, but I will continue to fight for this legislation to make sure hurting families are treated equally.”

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.

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