July 20, 2024

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State sued in paratransit death of Pierce Medicaid patient

State sued in paratransit death of Pierce Medicaid patient

A Puyallup man whose paratransit ride company was sued for grave injuries a woman allegedly suffered when her wheelchair wasn’t properly secured in 2013 reformed the business under another name in a matter of months.

Another person then allegedly suffered fatal injuries aboard one of his vans.

Tyler James Peterson, a 47-year-old who had both legs amputated, died of a severe head injury in January 2020 after his wheelchair tipped backward while going up a slight incline in an Access 4 Care Transport Inc. van, according to a lawsuit filed Jan. 18 in Pierce County Superior Court.

Peterson’s mother and two adult children contend the state is responsible for Peterson’s death. The Washington Health Care Authority didn’t have proper oversight of a program that offers non-emergency medical transportation to people eligible for the state’s Medicaid plan, called Apple Health, through a brokerage model overseen by the Health Care Authority, the family’s lawsuit states.

“The family hopes to seek justice with this case and to hopefully help to keep Medicaid NEMT (non-emergency medical transportation) passengers safe and free from avoidable harms,” plaintiff’s attorney Jack Connelly told The News Tribune in an emailed statement.

A state spokesperson declined to comment, citing the active litigation.

Court documents show the state has hired Seattle-based law firm Floyd, Pflueger and Ringer to defend it and Paratransit Services in court. The law firm had not filed a reply to the lawsuit as of noon Thursday.

The owner of the two paratransit businesses, Maher Alkadban, told The News Tribune during a phone call Thursday that he closed his former business, Life Transportation Inc., because he could not obtain insurance coverage following the 2013 accident. He then reopened as Access 4 Care Transport Inc. Before hanging up, Alkadban indicated his new company is operational and that state regulators have not contacted him about his business practices.

In Pierce County, the state contracts with Bremerton-based Paratransit Services Inc. to distribute public transit passes and arrange low-cost, door-to-door rides from other companies, like those operated by Alkadban.

Paratransit Services – which also serves Kitsap, Thurston, Clallam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Lewis, Mason and Pacific counties – did not respond to multiple requests for comment. It also provides services in Oregon and Northern California.

Court records show Alkadban’s businesses have been sued at least three other times in connection to Pierce County car crashes and ticketed six times since February 2021 for red-light camera violations in Kent. Two of those cases settled out of court.

A lawsuit filed last October that alleges an Access 4 Care driver “violently” rear-ended a car parked at a Tacoma MultiCare facility in March 2021 is pending. The driver claimed his foot slipped from the brake to the gas.

Life Transportation Inc.

In November 2013, Evalani Yockman was on her way home from a dialysis appointment in Lakewood when the Life Transportation vehicle she was riding began rounding a curve on Gravelly Lake Drive, according to a 2016 lawsuit that named the company as a defendant.

Yockman’s wheelchair flipped into the air, sending her head to the floor and audibly cracking her neck, the lawsuit alleges. Yockman demanded the driver call 911 and not move her; instead, he put her in her wheelchair, wiped the blood off her face and drove her about another hour home to Spanaway.

The driver nearly left Yockman at her front door, but a Life Transportation supervisor told him to take her back to a hospital about an hour away, the lawsuit alleges.

“He left my aunt in the middle of the parking lot and he left,” said disability advocate and retired Army officer Sue Bozgoz, who filed the lawsuit, during a recent phone interview with The News Tribune.

Bozgoz said the driver didn’t use proper safety mechanisms to restrain her aunt. She said Yockman told her the driver expressed concern about losing his job during the remainder of the ride.

Yockman’s daughter later arrived to take her into the hospital where medical staff determined she had suffered a fractured vertebra and extensive bruising to her head, the lawsuit states. She also lost the ability to stand on her own and swallow.

Yockman never returned home to live with her daughter, according to the lawsuit. She remained hospitalized as her health declined and died in a nursing home about a year after she was injured.

Bozgoz said she wanted to negotiate a multimillion-dollar wrongful death settlement with the insurance company but sparred with her family’s attorneys about entertaining offers below $1 million.

Bozgoz filed the lawsuit herself ahead of a three-year statute of limitations in 2016. Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh dismissed the case because she didn’t have an attorney and wasn’t representing herself. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in 2018.

After Yockman’s fall, the Health Care Authority recorded a lien against Life Transportation’s insurance provider, according to court documents.

Alkadban said he shut down and reopened as Access 4 Care to keep his business running. Public records showed he started Life Transportation in 2003 and let its business license expire in July 2016. He registered Access 4 Care with the state in October 2015.

“I didn’t get coverage for the insurance. That’s the issue,” said Alkadban, who later called The News Tribune with the phone number for his attorney.

Access 4 Care Inc.

Peterson’s family first sued Access 4 Care and transportation broker Paratransit Services, alleging wrongful death, in 2021.

According to the lawsuit, he was living with his mother in Bonney Lake and scheduled a paratransit ride to two appointments on Jan. 25, 2020. When the driver picked up him and his friend, he left Peterson’s wheelchair unsecured.

About two blocks away, Peterson’s wheelchair flipped backward going up a hill, according to the lawsuit. The fall caused him to slide to the back of the van and hit his head again on the wheelchair lift.

The driver asked someone to call 911, according to the lawsuit. Peterson said he felt OK, and emergency medical personnel cleared him to continue to his appointment.

“Very sorry about this,” the friend who accompanied Peterson recalled the driver saying, according to a court filing. “I must not have been paying attention when I was strapping in the wheelchair because I was on the phone with my boss.”

After his first appointment, Peterson began behaving oddly, according to the lawsuit. Before going on to the second appointment, the driver transported two other people home from medical appointments and allegedly asked Peterson and his friend not to tell his company about the extra trips.

During his subsequent dialysis appointment, Peterson became visibly ill and fell unconscious, according to the lawsuit. A blood clot had formed in his brain, and he died after a few days in the hospital.

Within days, Paratransit Services suspended the Access 4 Care driver, but an investigation stalled because the man quit and did not cooperate, according to the lawsuit.

The driver claimed during interviews with attorneys that Peterson unbuckled himself, but Peterson’s friend countered that he couldn’t have because of nerve damage, according to court filings. She said she always buckled Peterson.

An investigation by the Peterson family’s attorneys, Connelly Law Offices, determined the paratransit van did not meet safety regulations.

“As outfitted, the van was not able to properly secure the wheelchair holding Tyler Peterson, or any wheelchair,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Peterson family settled its claims against Access 4 Care outside of court for an undisclosed amount.

Just before the trial against Paratransit Services last August, the Peterson family withdrew the lawsuit. Court filings show the brokerage planned to argue it had no independent duty to protect Peterson because the driver was not its employee.

Connelly Law Offices refiled the lawsuit earlier this year and added the state as a defendant because Paratransit Services was operating under a government contract serving Medicaid patients.

Rumbaugh, the judge from Yockman’s wrongful death lawsuit, is overseeing the case, court documents show.

“What happened to Mr. Peterson was the result of a clear and obvious failure to ensure that providers of non-emergency medical transport services are ensuring passenger safety,” attorney Jack Connelly wrote in a statement. “There are supposed to be measures and safeguards in place to protect Medicaid patients utilizing these services, but those safeguards entirely failed Tyler on the date of his accident.”

Profile Image of Jared Brown

Jared Brown addresses Pierce County courts and regulation enforcement with an accountability lens. He joined The Information Tribune in 2022 and formerly was a summer intern in 2017. He has also protected police and breaking information for The Spokesman-Overview in Spokane. Jared has a master’s degree from the College of Washington and a journalism diploma from Gonzaga University.