The family of a Navajo man who died in a Farmington hospital from an alleged misdiagnosis tied to a language barrier on Wednesday filed a motion for summary judgment in connection with a lawsuit claiming medical malpractice and wrongful death.
Larry Williams, 67, died in San Juan Regional Medical Center on Feb. 8, 2018, from pneumonia and septic shock. According to the lawsuit, filed in Santa Fe County District Court on Jan. 22, 2021, Williams, who spoke primarily Navajo his entire life, went to the hospital on Feb. 7, 2018, with symptoms that included confusion, low oxygenation, underlying pulmonary disease and a recent history of pneumonia.
A doctor in the hospital’s emergency room diagnosed Williams with a urinary tract infection and discharged him; Williams’ symptoms grew worse and he returned to the hospital that evening and died the next day, the lawsuit said.
The motion for summary judgment was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fine Law Firm. According to the motion, “SJRMC did not offer Mr. Williams language assistance and did not clearly inform him of the availability of language assistance in spoken and written Navajo during his first February 7, 2018 visit.”
San Juan Regional Medical Center did not respond to Journal requests for comment, but the medical center said in court records that they plan to call Dr. Todd Parker of Virginia Beach, Virginia, as an expert witness. Parker is expected to testify that Williams responded appropriately to IV fluids; that the imaging and choice of antibiotic given to Williams were appropriate; that Williams did not, with any “reasonable degree of medical probability” have signs of acute respiratory illness that required further testing; that the care Williams received in the hospital’s emergency department “met the applicable standard of care;” and that Williams’ discharge from the ER was appropriate and there was no indication he required any further inpatient treatment.
Attorneys for Williams maintained that because he was not provided with an interpreter, the hospital staff was unable to communicate adequately with Williams and “missed his altered mental state, a symptom of a severe infection,” according to a statement issued Wednesday by the ACLU.
“Language assistance is vital to the overall health of Indigenous people. It is unconscionable that SJRMC, a health care provider that serves a large patient population of Navajo people, failed to provide the linguistic services that Mr. Williams depended on for his health and well-being,” said ACLU attorney Preston Sanchez.