Eddie Bernice Johnson’s family intends to file suit, alleging negligent care – The Dallas Morning News

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Former Dallas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s family intends to sue Baylor Scott & White Health System, alleging negligent care at the hospital’s rehabilitation center led to her death, the family’s lawyer announced Thursday.

Johnson, a trailblazing Black woman who spent decades as North Texas’ most powerful Democrat and the first registered nurse elected to Congress, died Sunday. According to a copy of her death certificate, provided by lawyer Les Weisbrod, Johnson died from a bone infection in her lumbar spine. She was 89.

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“If she had gotten proper care at that facility, she would be here today,” her son Kirk Johnson told reporters Thursday, alongside Weisbrod at his Lake Highlands law office. Both men appeared to grow emotional and choke back tears throughout the 30-minute news conference.

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Johnson, lovingly called “EBJ,” underwent extensive back surgery in September to correct degenerative conditions that would have made the longtime congresswoman unable to walk, Weisbrod said.

Johnson’s surgeon recommended she go to Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation for surgery aftercare, physical therapy and constant redressing of her wound to prevent infections.

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FILE - U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, speaks on July 22, 2019, in Dallas....
FILE – U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, speaks on July 22, 2019, in Dallas. Johnson’s family said Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, that the trailblazing Texas congresswoman, who died Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, at age 89, passed away after getting an infection and accused a Dallas rehabilitation facility of neglect. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)(Tony Gutierrez / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Weisbrod sent a letter Thursday to the hospital system and rehabilitation center informing them of the allegations — a mandatory notice given at least 60 days before a formal lawsuit is filed.

Weisbrod, an experienced medical malpractice litigator, said he has been in touch with the hospital system’s attorneys and is hopeful a resolution may be reached before the end of the 60-day window.

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Attorney for the late Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson spells out lawsuit in her death
Attorney Les Weisbrod spoke about the negligent care of the late Congresswoman that led to her death.

‘Inspiration to all’

“Congresswoman Johnson was a longtime friend and champion in the communities we serve — she is an inspiration to all,” Baylor Scott & White Health said in a statement. “We are committed to working directly with the Congresswoman’s family members and their counsel. Out of respect for patient privacy, we must limit our comments.”

Kirk Johnson had an appointment to meet with his mother’s case worker Sept. 21, 2023, at the Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation. Before he got there, his mother called him, saying she needed help and no one responded when she repeatedly pressed a call button, he said at the news conference.

According to a news release from Weisbrod, EBJ was “lying in her own feces and urine.”

Kirk Johnson called her condition “deplorable.”

“She was not attended to,” he said, “she was screaming out in pain and for help.”

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Kirk Johnson could not find any nurses. At the news conference, he said he was told staff were in training that day. He eventually went to the administrator’s first-floor office, asking for the person in charge. CEO David Smith followed Kirk Johnson to his mother’s room, up a couple of floors where staff were cleaning up the feces, according to the news release.

Another administrator, who was already in the room, said someone else had been reassigned to care for EBJ.

Smith, the CEO, remarked, “This shouldn’t have happened,” according to the news release.

Weisbrod estimates EBJ was alone for about an hour before she received medical care. The “congresswoman was abandoned,” he said.

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Sign of an infection

In medical records, Johnson’s orthopedic surgeon wrote Johnson “was found in bed sitting in her own feces, which was not being cleaned up.” Days later, the doctor wrote, she began having “copious purulent drainage” — a sign of an infection — from the surgical incision. According to Weisbrod, she also developed a fever.

A few days later, Johnson underwent a second surgery to remove infected tissue, and the hardware to stabilize her spine was replaced. It was a complex and difficult surgery to go through twice, “particularly for someone Eddie Bernice’s age,” Weisbrod said.

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Tests from Johnson’s wound found organisms related to feces, the release says.

“She was expected to go home and be fine,” Weisbrod said. “Instead, she got this infection at the Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation because they didn’t protect her wound properly and because they left her in her own feces unattended.”

Attorney Les Weisbrod (left) speaks about the negligent care of former Congresswoman Eddie...
Attorney Les Weisbrod (left) speaks about the negligent care of former Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson that led to her death as he and Johnson’s son Kirk Johnson (right) held a press conference at Miller Weisbrod Olesky Attorneys at Law offices in Dallas, January 4, 2024. Weisbrod has sent a mandatory pre-suit notice letter to Baylor Scott & White Health System and Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation putting them on notice of the intent to file a lawsuit for medical negligence resulting in the wrongful death of Former Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Johnson was moved to a nursing facility in mid-October, then to her home on Dec. 18 with hospice care, the release says.

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Johnson was aware of her condition, according to Weisbrod and her son.

She predicted the infection would kill her.

“She thought that she wouldn’t live three weeks, and she didn’t,” Kirk Johnson said.

Kirk Johnson said the last time he was able to have a conversation with his mother was Christmas Day.

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The prelude to a legal fight comes before Johnson is memorialized and laid to rest.

“Congresswoman and Kirk and the family, they don’t want this to happen to anybody else, so by putting this story out, if this prevents this from happening to one other person, then that would be what she would have wanted,” Weisbrod said.

Johnson’s retirement

Johnson represented Texas’ 30th congressional district from 1992 to 2023. She announced her retirement in November of 2021 and soon after endorsed Democrat Jasmine Crockett to replace her. With Johnson’s support, Crockett won the 2022 primary runoff and general election.

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Born in Waco in the segregated South, Johnson shattered barriers at nearly every stage of her political and professional career, paving the way for more women and African Americans to obtain leadership roles in politics, nursing and other fields in Texas and beyond.

She was the first African American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas’ VA hospital; the first African American from Dallas to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction; and the first Black woman to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Weisbrod, a prolific donor to Democratic Party candidates, has known EBJ since he was a teenager. His father was her accountant, he said, and he’s worked as her personal attorney.

In the spirit of her legacy, he said he hopes to reach a “peaceful” resolution with the hospital. As part of an ideal settlement, Weisbrod said the family wants to establish a foundation in the congresswoman’s name that would fund programs and activities she was passionate about.

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Texas law caps damages cases of death by medical negligence to $250,000. Weisbrod called the statue “terrible” and “unfair,” reducing the life of an “American hero” to a dollar amount. He called for a change in the law.

“I think [EBJ] would be happy if all of this that happened to her helped change that law,” he said.

A series of services for the beloved public servant will begin Jan. 8 in Dallas and end Jan. 10 in Austin.

Staff writer Marin Wolf contributed to this report.

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