County named in deadly prom-night car crash lawsuit

April 29, 2009 

The mother of a 17-year-old Bluffton High School student who died following a prom-night car wreck in May has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Beaufort County, alleging county paramedics took her son to a hospital unequipped to treat him.

Josh George was driving home May 18, 2008, when an alleged drunken driver ran a stoplight at the intersection of Buck Island Road and the Bluffton Parkway. The teen, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown 30 feet from his truck and suffered serious head trauma, according to an incident report obtained from Beaufort County Emergency Medical Services earlier this year. Ejection from a vehicle is one of the 12 indicators of serious trauma, according to state EMS protocols.

George suffered a laceration to the back of his scalp, a head injury and other injuries, according to the lawsuit.

The suit, filed March 12 and obtained by The Island Packet on Wednesday, alleges:

• Beaufort County paramedics failed to "accurately assess Joshua's condition at the scene of the accident and (failed) to transport him to the appropriate medical facility."

• The paramedics' decision to take George to Hilton Head Hospital instead of a rated trauma hospital, such as Savannah's Memorial University Medical Center, "is the direct and proximate cause of Joshua's death." In Savannah, the lawsuit says, he "would have been promptly treated ... by a trauma team and a neurosurgeon..."

• George couldn't avoid the collision because he was unable to see the vehicle that struck his truck due to poor road construction on the Bluffton Parkway. The "steepness of the slope" and the "construction of the sharp curve" at the intersection"substantially limit the ability of night-time drivers to see and to be seen." The suit cites the construction as a "direct and proximate cause of significant harm and death."

Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic said Wednesday the county could not comment on ongoing litigation.

In its response filed April 10, Beaufort County denies the allegations and said EMTs on the scene acted properly. It asks that the suit be dismissed.

The suit was filed by Cheryl George, the victim's mother. Her Hilton Head Island attorney, P. Jeffrey North, said in a Wednesday e-mail that the George family has asked him not to discuss the lawsuit publicly.

The suit seeks no specific monetary damages.

THE BACKGROUND

County emergency medical technicians Steven Manley and Michael Saunders took George directly to Hilton Head Hospital, reporting that it was the "closest facility," according to the lawsuit and the county's incident report.

The EMTs said LifeStar, the medical helicopter that serves Beaufort County, was unable to fly that night, according to the report.

Paramedics arrived at the crash scene at 3 a.m., the report said.

Ten minutes later, with George in the ambulance, they were on the way to Hilton Head Hospital. When the ambulance reached the hospital at 3:24 a.m., George "was conscious and was able to explain what had happened to him," according to the suit.

Over the next two hours, Hilton Head Hospital personnel "performed a number of diagnostic tests and procedures," according to the lawsuit.

At 5:20 a.m., less than two hours after he arrived, George was transferred to Memorial University Medical Center, a top-rated trauma hospital, according to the suit.

The reason for the transfer, according to Hilton Head Hospital records, was that "physician specialties needed are not available. ...specialty not available: neurosurgeon," the suit states.

A helicopter carrying George arrived at the Savannah hospital at about 6 a.m., three hours after the wreck, according to the suit.

George was admitted to the intensive care unit, examined by the trauma team and evaluated by a neurosurgeon who performed emergency brain surgery, according to the suit.

George died two days later.

Had the 17-year-old had been taken immediately to Savannah, he "would have been promptly treated ... by a trauma team and a neurosurgeon, and would have recovered from his injuries," the lawsuit contends.

The driver of the other car, Juan Rodriquez, 21, of Bluffton, was arrested the day of the crash. According to the Beaufort County Detention Center log, he was charged with:

• felony DUI

• causing an accident with injuries

• driving without an S.C. driver's license

• disregarding a traffic signal

• operating an uninsured vehicle

• hit and run from an accident with injuries

He remains in the detention center on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold, whichoccurs when a person's legal residency is in question. Bond has been set at more than $1.5 million.

TRAUMA CENTER STANDARDS

When asked about his unit's response to the crash earlier this year, Rusty Hollingsworth, the county's EMS director, wouldn't say why George wasn't taken directly to the Savannah facility, a drive of about 35 minutes from the wreck site.

He and Ladson Howell, the attorney for the county, emphasized that paramedics have the discretion to take patients to the hospital they deem most appropriate.

When asked about the incident late last year, Cheryl George, a school nurse, said she was perplexed by the decision to take her son to the island facility.

"I have no idea why they took him to Hilton Head," she said. "I have issues with that."

"My understanding is that when you have head injuries, you're supposed to take the person to the nearest place where there's a neurosurgeon on duty."

To qualify as a trauma center, a hospital must meet standards established by the American College of Surgeons.

Level 1 facilities, such as Memorial University Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, must have a full range of surgeons, specialists and equipment available 24 hours a day.

Beaufort Memorial Hospital is a Level 3 trauma facility, able to provide emergency resuscitation, surgery and intensive care, but fewer surgeons and specialists are on-call there.

Hilton Head Hospital used to be a Level 3 center but dropped that status in July 2007. Officials there, however, have said its services are comparable to those at a Level 3 facility.

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