Hospital Deportation
Rodrigo Abd  /  AP
A jury has found a South Florida hospital that chartered a plane and sent Luis Alberto Ramirez back to Guatemala over the objections of his family did not act unreasonably, an attorney for the man's legal guardian said Monday, July 27, 2009.
updated 7/27/2009 12:27:06 PM ET 2009-07-27T16:27:06

A hospital that quietly chartered a plane and sent a seriously brain injured illegal immigrant back to Guatemala over the objections of his family and legal guardian did not act unreasonably, a jury found Monday.

Health care and immigration experts across the country have closely watched the court case in the sleepy coastal town of Stuart. They say it underscores the dilemma facing hospitals with patients who are unable to pay for the long-term care they need and don't qualify for federal or state aid because of their immigration status.

Deputy Court Clerk Carol Harper said the unanimous 6-member jury found in favor of the hospital.

The lawsuit filed by 37-year-old Luis Jimenez's cousin and legal guardian sought nearly $1 million to cover the estimated lifetime costs of Jimenez's care in Guatemala. It also asked for damages from the hospital for "unlawfully detaining" him and punitive damages to discourage other medical centers from taking similar action.

The hospital said it was merely following a court order — which was being appealed at the time — and that Jimenez wanted to go home.

Gaspar's attorney Bill King said he was extremely disappointed with the ruling and was reviewing all options including whether to appeal.

"There is no doubt that the state government and the federal government has to address the situation," he said. "They can't let something like this happen again."

Martin Memorial Medical Center's CEO and president Mark E. Robitaille said in a statement the hospital was pleased with the ruling. But he agreed lawmakers must step in to ensure hospitals are not put in the same position in the future.

"We have maintained all along that we acted correctly and, most importantly, in the best interests of Mr. Jimenez," Robitaille said. "This is not simply an issue facing Martin Memorial. It is a critical dilemma facing health care providers across Florida and across the United States."

Robitaille, who was not yet head of the hospital when Jimenez was send back to Guatemala, said he was concerned that none of the health care reform proposals being debated in Congress address the issue.

Like millions of others, Jimenez came to the United States to work as a day laborer, sending money home to his family. In 2000, a drunk driver crashed into a van he was riding in, leaving him a paraplegic with the cognitive ability of a fourth grader. The man who caused the accident — which killed two people — was driving a stolen van. An insurance policy ended up paying a total of $30,000 in compensation that had to be split among Jimenez and three other victims, including the families of those who died.

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Jimenez's cousin, Montejo Gaspar, was named his legal guardian because of his brain injury.

Under federal law, hospitals that receive Medicare reimbursements are required to provide emergency care to all patients regardless of their ability to pay and must provide an acceptable discharge plan once the patient is stabilized.

But because of his immigration status and lack of insurance, no one else in the U.S. would provide long-term care to Jimenez. Gaspar initially supported the return but grew concerned after it became unclear where Jimenez would receive care in Guatemala.

Jimenez spent nearly three years at Martin Memorial before the hospital, backed by a letter from the Guatemalan government, got a Florida judge to OK the transfer to a facility in that country. Gaspar appealed.

But without telling Jimenez's family — and the day after Gaspar filed an emergency request to stop the hospital's plan — Martin Memorial put Jimenez on a $30,000 charter flight home early on July 10, 2003.

Gaspar eventually won his appeal, with the court ruling a state judge doesn't have the power to decide immigration cases and that Jimenez should not have been sent back. By then, it was too late. Jimenez had been released from the Guatemalan hospital and was living with his 73-year-old mother in a one-room home in the mountainous state of Huehuetenango — a steep hike from the village center and 12 hours from the Guatemalan capital.

King said he believed some good had come from bringing both the initial appeal and the most recent case.

"We've shown that state judges cannot authorize what is tantamount to private deportation of undocumented immigrants and that hospitals have to follow the federal requirements that are in place for the discharge of all people, including undocumented immigrants," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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