Stolen ambulance tragedy: $12.5 million payout

Health care providers in Texas have agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the theft of an unattended ambulance, which was then involved in an accident that killed a father and seriously injured the rest of his family. The plaintiff’s attorney says the settlement underscores the need for hospitals to secure ambulances and other vehicles.

The lawsuit alleged the hospital and paramedics were negligent for not providing proper care to the psychiatric patient who stole the vehicle, and for leaving the ambulance unattended, unlocked, and running.

Northwest Texas Healthcare System of Amarillo, has agreed to settle the case arising from the accident five years ago, according to Dallas attorney Frank L. Branson, JD, who represented the surviving mother and two of the children in their lawsuit against Northwest Texas Healthcare System, Northwest Texas Hospital, Amarillo Medical Services, Universal Health Services and two paramedics. The civil suit was settled after a court hearing in Judge John Board’s 181st District Court in Potter County, TX.

Ricky Dewayne Chavez, 33, died August 1999, from injuries suffered when a stolen ambulance, driven by Jamie Sue Whiteagle, crashed into the Chavez’s family van. Also injured in the accident were his wife, Tina Grady Chavez, and three children, Shelby Delaine Grady, Ricky Daniel Chavez, and Selena Raynea Chavez.

The mother suffered irreparable brain damage, leaving her unable to speak or feed herself. Shelby required several surgeries as a result of severe head trauma. The two other children also suffered physical injuries. "No amount of money will ever fix what happened to this family," Branson says. "This settlement will help them cover the overwhelming medical costs they continue to incur as a result of this horrific accident. It also will hopefully shed light on the inadequate security measures around the hospital so that nothing like this will happen again and destroy another family."

Patient was mentally ill

Branson says records indicate the woman who stole the van was admitted to Northwest Texas Hospital on Aug. 1, 1999, for a psychological evaluation. Despite diagnoses of psychosis, situational depression, and outward symptoms of mental illness, she was discharged with only instructions to seek assistance from a state-run facility, Branson says. As she left the hospital, she entered an unlocked ambulance, with its engine running, left unattended by the two paramedics. The theft of the ambulance was captured on a hospital security camera, but neither of the two security guards on duty attempted to stop Whiteagle, Branson says.

Shortly after speeding away in the ambulance, Whiteagle drove through a stop sign, crashing into the Chavez family’s minivan. Witnesses told Amarillo police investigators that the ambulance was traveling at a very high rate of speed and the people in the minivan had no chance to react.

In November 2000, Whiteagle pled guilty to manslaughter in connection to the accident and was sentenced to eight years in prison.