Wrongful death lawsuit over care given to Utah veteran at VA medical center resolved

| Courtesy photo Gregory Lee Smith

The parents of a military veteran have resolved a lawsuit against the federal government that alleged their son died in 2010 because of poor care at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson dismissed the wrongful death suit Tuesday at the request of the government and the parents, Gregory Lynn Smith and Jeri Bolinder. The parties agreed to pay their own court costs, but no other details about how the matter was settled were available in the public court record.

Gregory Lee Smith, a 1998 graduate of Tooele High School, volunteered for the U.S. Army after the 9/11 attacks and served with the Airborne Infantry in South Korea and Louisiana. In 2005, he received a medical discharge from the U.S. Army after injuring his back, according to the suit.

The 30-year-old Smith died in 2010 days after undergoing back surgery at the VA center, and his parents alleged their son was prematurely discharged from the hospital and that his standard of care fell below the generally accepted standard.

The suit, which was filed in 2012, sought an unspecified amount of money for economic damages, including funeral expenses, and noneconomic damages, including loss of companionship.

That request for noneconomic damages raised questions in the lawsuit concerning a conflict in Utah law.

The Utah Health Care Malpractice Act, passed by the Legislature in 1986, says an injured person can recover for noneconomic losses to compensate for pain, suffering and inconvenience — but only up to $450,000. And lawmakers never explicitly accounted for the state constitution’s prohibition of such caps in wrongful-death cases.

In 2015, at Benson’s request, the Utah Supreme Court weighed in on the conflict, ruling unanimously that the cap is unconstitutional in the “narrow subset of cases” where medical malpractice has resulted in death. The court said its holding has no application in cases where the alleged medical malpractice does not result in death.

Proceedings in the federal lawsuit were put on hold pending the Supreme Court ruling, which did not deal with the question of whether medical malpractice caused Smith’s death.