Tyrone Michael Hunter died without his dignity three years ago, but a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday helped his mother honor his life by awarding her nearly $2.9 million in her wrongful death lawsuit against the city.
"I know he was in pain; I know he was scared . . . but I know he is smiling now," said his mother, Margie Hunter. "He is smiling because I did the right thing."
Hunter died on Aug. 7, 1995, after a car accident and a series of humiliating events, his mother charged in her lawsuit against the D.C. Fire Department and D.C. General Hospital.
Hunter, a 24-year-old hairdresser, lived his life as a woman. He dressed in women's clothes, wore makeup and took hormone injections to develop breasts. He never officially changed his name, but was known as Tyra Hunter for almost 10 years. Eyewitnesses testified during the five-week trial that a rescue worker who cut open Hunter's pants at the accident scene recoiled in surprise, made crass remarks and stopped treatment for several minutes after discovering Hunter's male genitals.
The jury did not individually blame firefighter Adrian Williams, who was named in the lawsuit and who testified that he cut Hunter's pants. Instead, the jury held the department liable for $600,000 for the remarks and for withholding treatment.
"Tyra had a dream," said Dee Curry, a member of Transgenders Against Discrimination and Defamation who was in court for the verdict. "She didn't want to be the stereotypical transgendered person. I always admired her for that. That's why her death shook the community the way it did. The humiliation behind it was devastating to us."
The jury, made up of six women and two men, awarded nearly $2.3 million to Margie Hunter in her claims that D.C. General Hospital emergency room doctor Joseph Andre Bastien failed to diagnose Hunter's injuries and follow nationally accepted standards of care. The lawsuit alleged in part that Bastien misread X-rays that are now missing, decided against inserting a chest tube to drain blood that pooled near Hunter's heart and did not give Hunter four units of blood that were available.
Outside the courthouse yesterday, Margie Hunter said she hopes that Bastien is fired and that he "goes back to school and gets certified before he touches anyone." Bastien was not in court for the verdict.
While preparing for the trial, Margie Hunter's attorney, Richard F. Silber, said he discovered that five of the eight attending emergency room physicians at D.C. General were not certified and, more important, not even eligible to take the medical board exams.
"This was a huge loss," Silber said. "This person didn't just die. He literally suffocated. He suffocated over a period of time. . . . A life was lost here due to unbelievable mistakes." Steven Anderson, the city's attorney, refused to comment on the verdict.
Jurors shook Margie Hunter's hand and wished her well before they left the courthouse yesterday. The jurors declined to speak with the attorneys and the media about the case.
"It's nice to see that the jury did not seem to have gotten hung up on the fact that the decedent was transgendered and that they saw that she deserved to be treated like everybody else," said Dana Priesing, a transgendered lawyer who watched the trial and posted testimony summaries on the Internet every day.
Members of the transgendered community attended the trial daily to show support for Margie Hunter and to raise awareness about people who cross genders. Hunter's face has been emblazoned on T-shirts over the words "God's Gift" and two coalitions have been formed in his name. Since Hunter's death, at least a dozen community groups have staged protests claiming that the city government is tolerating bigotry.
The D.C. Fire Department launched an internal investigation after the accident to determine who made the crude remarks at the accident scene. When Margie Hunter filed her lawsuit, the Fire Department stopped the investigation. No one was disciplined, but every member of the department was forced to attend diversity training sessions.
"The jury looked at all the facts and recognized that Tyra was not a man dressed as a female but a human being," said Earline Budd, a transgendered activist who watched most of the trial.
"She lived her life as a woman, but all of that is erased," Priesing said. "In court, she became Tyrone, and the people who knew her called her he.' That is sad to me. Maybe it was because in a legal proceeding, you have to go by the official name. But I think we should honor her by calling her what she called herself." CAPTION: After the jury announced its decision, Margie Hunter, the mother of Tyrone Hunter, leaned her head against the shoulder of investigator Ted Howard. ec