Group uses ‘brain dead’ teen as fundraising tool

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An advocacy group is facing sharp criticism for trying to raise money using the case of a 13-year-old California girl who was declared brain dead.

Consumer Watchdog’s recent fundraising appeal to supporters generated condemnation from an attorney for the family of the girl, Jahi McMath, and from Children’s Hospital Oakland, where she was declared brain dead following sleep apnea surgery.

The nonprofit noted in its email solicitation that it fights for patient safety for families like McMath’s and it had drafted a proposed November ballot measure that would raise medical malpractice award limits in California.

Attorney Christopher Dolan, who represents Jahi’s family, is a board member of Consumer Attorneys of California, the prime group funding the ballot initiative to lift the cap on pain and suffering awards. But he said he was dismayed that Consumer Watchdog used Jahi’s name as a fundraising tool.

“Using Jahi’s case as an example is wrong and that is not what this case is about,” he said in a text message to the Associated Press.

Hospital spokesman Sam Singer also criticized the use of Jahi’s case for fundraising, calling it “tasteless and thoughtless.”

Consumer Watchdog Executive Director Carmen Balber said the funds were being solicited for the organization’s patient safety program, not the political campaign, and none of the money would go to the ballot measure.

“We thought we were being clear,” she said. “This email has been construed in ways we didn’t expect.”

Consumer Watchdog’s Christmas Eve email to supporters prominently mentioned the Jahi McMath case to support the need for its advocacy work and for lifting the state’s 38-year-old cap on medical malpractice awards.

“Hospitals like Children’s actually have an incentive to let children like Jahi die,” the email said. “If kids injured by medical negligence die, the most their families can recover is $250,000. … If children who are victims of medical negligence live, hospitals are on the hook for medical bills for life, which could be millions.”

If it gets on November’s ballot and passes, the Troy & Alana Pack Patient Safety Act would raise the cap on medical malpractice awards to about $1.2 million, a limit that would increase based on inflation, said Bob Pack, chair of the campaign committee. He said the group has collected about 500,000 signatures and wants 300,000 more by March 25 to assure there are enough valid ones to qualify for the ballot.

Jahi underwent surgery at Children’s Hospital on Dec. 9 to treat severe sleep apnea. Surgeons removed her tonsils and other parts of her nose and throat to widen the air passages.

Following the surgery, she bled from her mouth and nose and went into cardiac arrest. Doctors declared her brain dead three days later and on Dec. 20 sought to remove her ventilator.

Her mother, Nailah Winkfield, refusing to believe her daughter was dead as long as her heart was beating, went to court to stop the machine from being disconnected and twice won injunctions stopping the hospital. On Friday, the two sides reached an agreement, allowing Jahi to be transferred to an undisclosed facility.

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