STUART, Fla. – A South Florida hospital that quietly chartered a plane and sent a seriously brain injured illegal immigrant back to Guatemala over the objections of his family and legal guardian did not act unreasonably, a jury ruled Monday.
Health care and immigration experts across the country have closely watched the court case in the sleepy coastal town of Stuart. They say it 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.
Deputy Court Clerk Carol Harper said the unanimous 6-member jury found in favor of the hospital.
Jack Hill, an attorney for the legal guardian of 37-year-old Luis Jimenez, would not immediately comment on the verdict.
The lawsuit filed by Jimenez's cousin and legal guardian sought nearly $1 million to cover the estimated lifetime costs of Jimenez's care in Guatemala. It also asked for damages from the hospital for "unlawfully detaining" him and punitive damages to discourage other medical centers from taking similar action.
The hospital said it was merely following a court order — which was being appealed at the time — and that Jimenez wanted to go home.
Martin Memorial Medical Center's CEO and president Mark E. Robitaille said in a statement the hospital was pleased with the ruling.
"We have maintained all along that we acted correctly and, most importantly, in the best interests of Mr. Jimenez," Robitaille said.
But he added: "What is most disappointing is that the issue of providing health care to undocumented immigrants remains unresolved on a state and national level. This is not simply an issue facing Martin Memorial. It is a critical dilemma facing health care providers across Florida and across the United States."
Robitaille was not yet head of the hospital when Jimenez was send back to Guatemala. He said he hoped the case would push leaders at the state and federal levels to find a solution rather than relying on individual health care providers to find one on a case-by-case basis. Robitaille said none of the health care reform proposals under consideration in Congress address the issue.
Like millions of others, Jimenez came the U.S to work as a day laborer, sending money home to his family. In 2000, a drunk driver crashed into a van he was riding in, leaving him a paraplegic with the cognitive ability of a fourth grader.
Under federal law, 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.
But because of his immigration status and lack of insurance, no one else in the U.S. would provide long-term care to Jimenez.
His cousin, Montejo Gaspar, was named Jimenez's legal guardian because of his brain injury. Gaspar initially supported the return but grew concerned after it became unclear where Jimenez would receive care in Guatemala.
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.
Gaspar eventually won his appeal, with the court ruling a state judge doesn't have the power to decide immigration cases. By then, it was too late. Jimenez had been released from the Guatemalan hospital and was living with his 73-year-old mother in a one-room home in the mountainous state of Huehuetenango — a steep hike from the village center and 12 hours from the Guatemalan capital.