The D.C. government has agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the death of Tyrone Michael Hunter, whose family contended that he was ridiculed instead of treated by the D.C. fire department after a car accident.
Hunter, 24, died on Aug. 7, 1995, after a traffic accident at 50th and C streets SE. Known as Tyra to his friends, Hunter lived his life as a woman, dressing in women's clothes, wearing makeup and taking hormone injections to develop breasts. When rescue workers responding to the crash discovered Hunter's male genitalia, they allegedly made crass remarks and stopped treatment. According to bystanders, the derisive laughter continued even after they protested.
The settlement, announced yesterday, marked the closing of a case in which the D.C. government for years had steadfastly denied responsibility. In addition to alleging that Hunter wasn't assisted at the accident scene, in violation of his civil rights, his family maintained that he died as a result of negligence by D.C. General Hospital.
"I'm glad this is over with," Hunter's mother, Margie Hunter, said yesterday. "This has never been about money but about finding justice for my son. And today, after five years of bitter struggle, I feel that some measure of justice has been achieved."
Hunter made her remarks in the shadows of D.C. Superior Court, where she had prevailed after a five-week jury trial in December 1998. Jurors awarded her $2.9 million, but attorneys for the District appealed the decision. The city's position outraged many community activists, including leaders of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, who last year petitioned Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to settle the case.
Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) said he believed the suit should have been resolved long ago, saying D.C. lawyers focused too long in a search for legal technicalities. "From the facts as I saw them, there was nothing defensible there," Brazil said.
Hunter's lawyer, Richard F. Silber, joined in the criticism yesterday. "I think after the jury's verdict, they could have come to this result much sooner," Silber said.
But Silber said the settlement was a fair resolution. In addition to the money, the Williams administration agreed to rename the fire department's diversity and sensitivity program for Tyra Hunter as a reminder of the need for equal treatment.
Attorneys for the D.C. government had been awaiting a ruling from the trial judge on their motion to overturn the jury's verdict. As more than a year went by with no decision from Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr., the two sides began exploring a settlement.
"Our hearts go out to the Hunter family," said Corporation Counsel Robert R. Rigsby. "This type of behavior will not be tolerated by the Williams administration."
In a statement, Williams echoed that view, declaring "discrimination by officials or employees of any agency of the District of Columbia government based on race, gender or sexual orientation, of the nature alleged in this case, will not be tolerated."
Hunter, however, said she believed that the District could have taken stronger action. No one was disciplined, although the D.C. Council recently demanded an investigation. One of the firefighters on the accident scene, Adrian Williams, recently was promoted to sergeant. The doctor named in her suit, Joseph A. Bastien, remains at D.C. General.
"I would have liked to see both of them lose their jobs," Hunter said.
According to testimony in the case, in addition to paramedics denying Tyrone Hunter treatment at the scene, Bastien allegedly failed to give him a blood transfusion at the hospital that might have saved his life. He also failed to insert a chest tube to drain blood that was pooled near Hunter's heart. Had he taken those basic steps, Silber's medical witnesses said, Hunter would have had an 86 percent chance of survival. Attorneys for the District maintained that Hunter's injuries were too severe and that death was likely.
The jury had found that Williams and other fire department employees "unlawfully withdrew treatment" from Hunter in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act. The jury also concluded that Bastien was negligent in his treatment of Hunter at the hospital. In its verdict, the jury specified that $600,000 of the award stemmed from the fire department's actions and that $2.3 million involved Bastien's work.
During the settlement negotiations, the D.C. government persuaded Margie Hunter to drop her claim against Bastien. That means that his name will not be submitted to a federal registry that keeps track of medical malpractice cases, sources said.
Hunter, 53, said she has no immediate plans for the $1.75 million, but hopes to be able to provide for her granddaughter's college education and help her daughter. On a broader level, she said, she hoped her son's death will take on a special meaning.
"I hope that everybody in this city, regardless of race, creed, color or gender, will be treated equally," she said, fighting tears. "No one should have to suffer because they're different than other people. I hope this case would reflect that."