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$39-million civil suit looms over Pinellas

The family of a brain-damaged boy seeks money to care for him, alleging emergency workers made mistakes after he was rescued from a pool.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- With his older sister looking after him, 2-year-old Rex Brolin managed to slip under the fence surrounding the family swimming pool in the summer of 1992, falling into the warm water.

Rick and Nanette Brolin found him floating on the pool's surface about two to three minutes later. Brolin fished out his son and handed his pale, limp body to his wife -- a nurse who started CPR with the help of a passer-by who heard her screams.

Emergency medical workers responded to Brolin's frantic 911 call minutes later, trying to bring back the child's pulse and breathing before taking him to Bayfront Medical Center.

But by the time it was over, the lack of oxygen had left Rex with severe brain damage. Now eight years later, Rex can't walk or talk. He uses a feeding tube and a wheelchair. The Brolins blame his condition on the medical workers' lack of proper equipment and sloppy care. The have sued St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and the ambulance company hired by the county.

The serious and potentially costly case -- the family is seeking more than $39-million for medical expenses alone -- is scheduled to go to trial Monday, lasting three weeks in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in St. Petersburg.

"Thirty-nine-million dollars? You can buy a hospital for that," said Chip Morrison, general counsel for the Florida League of Cities. "That's an extraordinary amount of money. I'm unaware of similar damages anywhere in the state."

The Brolins say they need the money to care for Rex because of the half-dozen mistakes made by four emergency medical workers for the city and the ambulance company.

Among the mistakes the Brolins say were made: The workers installed a breathing tube incorrectly, allowing it to slip into the wrong place. They drove back to the house to retrieve equipment before taking Rex to the hospital. They falsified documents to cover up mistakes.

The Brolins have hired Dr. John Sterba, an expert on the standard of emergency medical care, who reviewed the case records. Sterba will testify at a cost of $2,000 a day that the standard of care was below normal and that Rex could have recovered if he had received the proper medical care.

Rex, now 10, is one step above a vegetative state, according to the family's attorney, David White of West Palm Beach. The skinny, red-headed kid must be cared for every minute of every day. Medical and financial experts hired by the Brolins estimate Rex may live almost another six decades, costing nearly $40-million in past and future medical bills, court records show. That number doesn't even include any costs a jury might award for the family's pain and suffering.

A nearly $40-million lawsuit is rare, particularly in conservative Pinellas County, but the serious circumstances surrounding this case have St. Petersburg's city attorneys concerned. "It is the most serious case that we have had in years that I can remember," longtime Assistant City Attorney Mike Davis told the council in November 1999. Davis retired in March 2000.

Council members, who would not comment for this story, have on occasion in the past eight years talked about the case at regular council meetings.

"What's bad about this case is the bad facts," City Council member Kathleen Ford said at a November 1999 meeting. "We do want to do as much damage control as we can."

A jury can award any judgment against a government, but state law limits the amount it must pay. In this case, the maximum amount St. Petersburg and Pinellas would have to pay would be $200,000, unless the Brolins ask the Legislature to approve a special bill, a common occurrence each year.

Although the private ambulance company, Lifefleet Southeast Inc., which has since been gobbled up by American Medical Response, is insured, most governments insure themselves. That means if they must pay a large judgment, they rely on savings, cutting services or raising taxes.

The case went to mediation in September 1998 and in November 2000, but no settlement was reached. Bill Drake, an assistant city attorney, told City Council members in November 1999 that the city had made "substantial offers" to the family, but they were rejected.

"The exposure here is just tremendous," council member Bill Foster said at that time.

Through their attorney, the Brolins -- Rick, 49, and Nanette, 45 -- declined to comment. The couple, who have eight children, now live in Dunnellon.

Court records show the Brolins did reach a separate settlement with Downings Forge, which installed a fence around their pool. Settlements usually are confidential, but court records show Lifefleet offered last year to pay $3-million -- the amount insurance would cover.

Lifefleet, which is now part of the huge ambulance company American Medical Response, provides service in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, operating in Pinellas as SunStar.

The Brolins' 1994 lawsuit also names the city, county commissioners and county Emergency Medical Services Authority, a separate taxing agency that contracts with cities and Lifefleet to respond to emergency calls.

In court documents, attorneys for the city and county indicate they blame Rex's condition on the Brolins and Rex's sister, Shawna, for not watching him Aug. 4, 1992; Downings Forge; and Allied Healthcare Products and Matrix Medical, which produced and distributed prepackaged pediatric medical equipment.

"We're prepared to go to trial, vigorously defending the city," said Ken Beytin, a private attorney who has been paid $75,000 by the city. Court records show the county plans to argue that it is not responsible for the actions of the city and Lifefleet because of a clause in its contracts in which the two have agreed to take responsibility for any allegations. But the city and Lifefleet claim they are immune to any liability because they were acting as agents for the county's authority -- the one ultimately responsible for emergency medical service in Pinellas. Lifefleet attorneys, Kenneth MacCollom and Rick Mattson, did not return phone calls. James Kadyk, a private attorney hired to represent Pinellas, declined to comment.

- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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