On March 16, 2012, 53-year-old David Zeller was taken to SF General exhibiting numb legs and severe back pain. He left the hospital paraplegic.
The Chronicle has his story, which is sad, but interesting and worth exploring in that it poses a difficult legal question.
Zeller alleged that he was irresponsibly taken off his gurney and placed on an MRI table, leading to the spinal trauma that caused his paraplegia. Moreover, doctors failed to order neurological monitoring and spine-protecting precautionary measures. He went on to sue for malpractice and win a settlement of $1.5 million, $900,000 of it from the city and $60,000 from the UC system (SF General doctors are UC employees).
However, Zeller took his own life in March at age 57. That's when, the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit & Oversight Committee and the city's attorney's office argue, the terms of that settlement were rendered moot.
The city argues that the costs of Zeller’s long-term medical care, which is of course no longer possible, made up the bulk of the settlement. But Carter Zinn, Zeller's lawyer, says that hadn't been specified, and his client — and by extension, to some degree he himself — is owed the money, deceased or otherwise.
Zeller appears to not have had an heir with whom he was in contact, so Zinn tracked down Michael McCowan, a nephew of Zeller's who was roughly Zeller's own age. Responding to critics in the Chron's comment section, McCowan chimes it that "My grandmother had my father when she was really young. Then she married David’s dad and had David much later. My dad was about 20 years older than David, which is why David and I were only a few years apart even though I am his nephew. " McCowan was close with Zeller as a child and a young person, he says.
Part of Zinn's argument is maybe difficult to follow: "[David's] not here physically to feel cheated by this," he tells the Chron, "but spiritually this has to do with letting him rest.” Easier to understand: Zinn says his small legal firm has budgeted according to receiving money from the settlement.
Mark Lipton, a deputy city attorney, wasn't really having any of this, though. “The city owes no contractual obligation to decedent, his heirs, if any, or your firm,” Lipton apparently wrote Zinn. “As we have advised you, it appears that this will be a circumstance where the proposed settlement will not be approved. In sum, there is no settlement to enforce.”
New settlement negotiations begin in July, and, says Zinn, he'll go ahead and sue the city for breach of contract if those don't work out.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.