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Money trail leads to rancor

The money that helped end the unity between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers is mostly gone.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published March 30, 2005


THE LATEST
New court activity: A federal appeals court agreed late Tuesday to allow Terri Schiavo's parents to file a motion for a rehearing on a request to have the woman's feeding tube reinserted. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed to consider a motion on whether a Tampa federal judge should have considered the entire state court record and not just the procedural history.
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Michael and Terri Schiavo's attorneys knew that going to trial over a medical malpractice claim was a huge risk.

Would a jury believe that doctors missed signs of Terri's bulimia, a condition lawyers would blame for her collapse and severe brain damage? Or would they blame Schiavo herself for hiding it?

Not long before the 1992 trial opened, the Schiavos' attorneys decided to make an offer. They would settle the case for only $250,000.

The offer was rejected.

"They basically told us to take a hike," said lawyer Gary Fox, who represented the couple. "Good thing for us."

A jury later awarded the Schiavos $2-million.

The long, complicated history of that 1992 award and how it was spent has been a bitter point of contention between Michael Schiavo and his wife's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. The Schindlers have accused their son-in-law of wanting his wife dead to collect much of that cash.

But 12 years after Schiavo and the Schindlers began fighting in the courts, lawyers expect little cash to be left when the battle is finished.

"I can't imagine there's going to be anything left," said Deborah Bushnell, one of Michael Schiavo's attorneys.

Terri Schiavo's guardianship was paid more than $700,000 between the jury award and a prior settlement with a doctor, once attorney fees and other expenses were paid. Michael Schiavo netted at least $300,000.

Today, Schiavo's guardianship fund has about $70,000. Most of that, Bushnell said, is going to be used upon Schiavo's death to repay Medicaid, which has paid for much of Schiavo's care since 2002.

Terri Schiavo collapsed on Feb. 25, 1990, after suffering cardiac arrest, the oxygen cut off to her brain. Doctors later said her heart stopped because of a potassium imbalance caused by bulimia, an eating disorder.

As a teenager, Schiavo weighed about 200 pounds. But she weighed only 120 pounds at age 25. She kept her weight off through bulimia, which involves vomiting after eating, the Schiavos' lawyers told jurors.

The couple had been married about six years when Mrs. Schiavo began thinking she was pregnant because she kept missing her menstrual periods.

Two doctors failed to ask about Schiavo's nutrition, missing the warning signs of bulimia, said Fox.

"I think the real tragedy is that people forget that Terri's condition was preventable," Fox said.

The two doctors named in a lawsuit denied being negligent. One, however, settled his part of the case for $250,000 before trial.

That money, minus attorney fees and costs, went to Terri Schiavo's guardianship.

The insurance company for the remaining physician named in the suit - Dr. G. Stephen Igel, who declined to comment for this story - refused to settle, Fox said.

Once the trial opened, Fox said, lawyers for the insurance company offered to settle for the same $250,000. This time, the Schiavos' attorneys refused.

Jurors found for the Schiavos, though they reduced a $6-million award to $2-million after deciding Schiavo was partially at fault for not telling doctors about her bulimia. The jury award was split between Terri Schiavo's guardianship, which received $1.39-million for her future care, and $610,400 to her husband for the loss of his wife's companionship.

Under Florida law, the insurer had to pay the full jury award because it had turned down a good faith offer of settlement.

Terri Schiavo's guardianship received $640,354, tax free, after attorney fees and other costs, court records show.

Michael Schiavo would have received a tax-free $360,000 if he paid the same percentage in costs and legal fees as his wife. That number could not be confirmed.

On April 7, 1993, court records show, $776,254 was in the guardianship account, which requires court approval for any expenditure. (Michael Schiavo could spend his money, not part of this fund, any way he saw fit without court approval.)

Once Michael Schiavo petitioned the court for permission to have doctors remove his wife's feeding tube, arguing it was his wife's wish, the legal battle with the Schindlers consumed much of the money.

George Felos, Michael Schiavo's lead attorney, has been paid $358,434 and Bushnell $80,309, though the lawyers have worked without cost since 2002.

"This is a pretty normal guardianship from the standpoint of what's being paid for Terri's care," Bushnell said. "There are no red herrings."

The amount paid for Schiavo's medical care could not be confirmed through court records.

An attorney for the Schindlers could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In 2001 attorney Pat Anderson, who at the time represented the Schindlers, complained most of the cash wasn't being used to care for Terri Schiavo.

"It's offensive," Anderson said in 2001.

Felos has said the attorney's fees were spent to implement Terri Schiavo's wishes and as such were spent in her best interests.

Fox, a Miami lawyer, said the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo worked closely together during the trial and were united in their love for Terri.

"I feel horrible," Fox said, "that things degenerated the way they have."

[Last modified March 30, 2005, 01:04:14]


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