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North Alabama jury awards $15 million verdict to family over fatal ambulance ride

A Limestone County jury has awarded $15 million to the family of Robert Owen, a man who died of a heart attack while in the care of Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Inc. (HEMSI) in 2019. The verdict, the largest in the county's history, brings to an end a protracted legal battle.

The lawsuit filed by Owen's widow alleges gross negligence on the part of HEMSI ambulance driver Jacob Steele and paramedic Charles Hui.

In April 2019, Robert Owen, 81, was being transported from Huntsville Hospital to UAB Medical Center for a cardiac exam. During the transport, Steele was seen on video losing consciousness, swerving and repeatedly veering out of his lane. After rounding the turn into Birmingham, Steele, with permission from a HEMSI supervisor, took over driving duties with Hui. Instead of continuing his duties as a paramedic, Steele put on headphones, listened to music and fell asleep with his feet on Owen's gurney.

According to the family's attorney, Owen was denied necessary emergency medical care as required by internal policies, state regulations and EMS protocol. Owen's calls for help during the heart attack were ignored because Steele was unconscious. After briefly checking on Owen, Hui continued driving the remaining 40 minutes to Birmingham.

Owen died of a heart attack 11 days later at UAB. A video showing the entire act that the jury found negligent was reviewed during the trial.

During the trial, Owen's family was represented by attorneys David Marsh, Rip Andrews, Ben Ford and Ty Brown of the law firm Marsh, Rickard & Bryan.

The trial revealed disturbing details about Steele and HEMSI's past. Steele had a history of drug use and was reportedly under the influence while transporting Owen. Despite multiple warnings and having been fired in the past, HEMSI management did not drug test Steele and allowed him to continue driving. It was also revealed that HEMSI had received reports that Steele was in an intoxicated state on the day of the incident, but did nothing to prevent him from driving the ambulance.

In addition to the video, the jury also considered audio from a call from the driver who fell asleep at the wheel.

The lawyers say they've proven that HEMSI tried to cover up Steele's misconduct, failed to report Steele's conduct as required by state law and went so far as to delete video of Steele's past conduct — a cover-up that also extended to the events surrounding Owen's transfer.

Following the verdict, HEMSI released a statement to WHNT News 19 saying, “This was a tragic loss of life. Our greatest desire is to safely serve the citizens who depend on us. Failure to do so impacts many people, including the people we serve and HEMSI team members. We continue to learn from every situation so we can better serve our community.”

According to the family's lawyers, HEMSI's defense argued that given Owen's age and pre-existing heart condition, it was likely he would die regardless of their actions.

“I think one of the reasons we chose to get involved in this case and work so hard on it, and one of the reasons the jury returned such a significant verdict, is because Robert Owen's family couldn't be better, more wonderful people,” attorney Rip Andrews said.

“They chose this case because what they wanted was justice. It's hard to explain, but what they wanted was recognition, that members of the community saying 'your father, your husband was wronged, we see you, we hear you and we want to do something,'” Andrews said.

Grayson Everett is the state and politics editor for Yellow Hammer News. You can follow him on Twitter. Grayson

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