On Nov. 17, 2017, Brittany O’Connor tried to kill herself by strangulation. She was rushed to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno where she was not expected to survive.
What happened next is the focus of a Fresno Superior Court civil lawsuit that pits her father against Community Regional Medical Center and Donor Network West, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit that connects organ donations to people in need of transplants in 40 counties in California and Nevada.
In his lawsuit, Terence “Mike” O’Connor Jr. accuses Community Regional Medical Center and Donor Network West of harvesting his daughter Brittany’s organs without his permission.
They have accused the two entities of engaging “in a pervasive and unlawful scheme to harvest organs from terminal patients” by denying other parents, guardians or their lawful representatives the right to object to an organ donation.
They are seeking class-action status for their lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses Community Regional Medical Center and Donor Network West of circumventing California’s Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which regulates the donation of organs, by having only Brittany’s mother sign papers for the donation.
The law requires both parents to give consent for the donation to occur, the lawsuit says.
Officials for Community Regional Medical Center and Donor Network West say they have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. But in a statement, Donor Network West public affairs manager Noel Sanchez said: “In our mission to save and heal lives, Donor Network West follows strict and transparent processes in accordance with established local, federal laws and regulations.”
Michelle Von Tersch, vice president of communications and public affairs for Community Medical Centers, which oversees Community Regional Medical Center, said: “While we won’t comment on the particulars of pending court proceedings, we do follow applicable laws for all organ donations, which saves so many lives each day. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Brittany’s family members for their tragic loss. We know it is a terrible time for them.”
O’Connor is seeking unspecified damages for negligence, fraud, unfair business practices, interference with his daughter’s remains and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In the lawsuit, his lawyers contend Community Regional Medical Center deceived O’Connor and callously told him he had three minutes to say goodbye to his daughter.
When O’Connor objected to having his daughter’s organs harvested, the lawsuit says, Community Regional Medical Center falsely characterized him as a threat to staff and called security, which called the Fresno Police Department, which sent an officer who escorted O’Connor from the hospital.
Video shows final moments
The lawsuit gives only her father’s and his lawyers’ account of what happened, but Davidson and Kharazi said the facts are supported by Brittany’s medical reports and a video from a Fresno police body camera as the officer talks to O’Connor.
In the video, O’Connor is sitting next to his daughter, who is hooked up to a life-support machine. While hospital and security staff stand nearby, O’Connor tells the police officer that his daughter is not brain-dead and opposes the idea of harvesting her organs.
“They want me to pull the plug, but she is breathing on her own,” O’Connor says, telling the police officer he has medical knowledge from his days as a Navy corpsman in Desert Storm.
O’Connor says hospital officials are pressuring him to “pull the plug” and if they kill his daughter to harvest her organs it would be an act of murder. He implores the officer to do his duty and protect her.
But the officer explains that his job is to escort him out of the hospital because security complained he was trespassing. He then gives O’Connor time to say goodbye to his daughter.
What led to his expulsion is explained in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit doesn’t doesn’t say why Brittany O’Connor, the mother of two children, tried to kill herself. She was 26 years old when she died a day after Thanksgiving.
Applying organ-donation law
According to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, there is a pecking order as to who is authorized to make the donation, starting with an agent for the decedent who has power of attorney for health care. After that, the pecking order is spouse or domestic partner; adult children; parents; adult siblings; adult grandchildren; grandparents; and someone who exhibited special care for the decedent during his or her lifetime.
According to the law, if someone objects to the organ donation, then the gift can only be made by a majority of the people who are authorized to give the donation.
In this case, Brittany had no spouse or adult children, and had given no advance directive on what to do with her organs, so her mother and father, who are divorced, were contacted by hospital staff.
The lawsuit gives this account:
On Nov. 20, 2017, three days after their daughter was admitted to the hospital, Terence “Mike” and Shawna O’Connor met with their daughter’s treating doctors, who told them that Brittany was in a deep coma, but still alive.
Mike O’Connor wanted his daughter placed on a ventilator for 30 days to give her a chance to recover. Shawna O’Connor wanted her daughter transitioned to comfort care in preparation for her death.
Soon after the meeting, CRMC, through doctors and staff, began receiving information from Shawna O’Connor that accused Mike O’Connor of being abusive and estranged from his daughter. The lawsuit says the accusations are false.
CRMC never verified the information, nor talked to Mike O’Connor about the allegations. Instead, CRMC accepted the information as true, and designated Shawna O’Connor as the “ethically appropriate person to make end-of-life decisions for her daughter and to establish grounds for the future organ harvesting,” the lawsuit says.
This way, Shawna O’Connor could accept her daughter was brain-dead and sign papers “so that her organs could be harvested and sold,” the lawsuit says.
Meantime, medical staff had told Mike O’Connor that his daughter was still alive and had “a one percent chance of survival,” the lawsuit says. According to Davidson, O’Connor believed his daughter would survive because “he said he saw her moving and responding to touch.” In the video, he’s heard telling the police officer that she also is breathing on her own.
On Nov. 24, 2017, Community Regional Medical Center officials told him that his daughter was brain-dead. He demanded a second opinion, but Community Regional Medical Center staff informed him he couldn’t get one because the hospital had already received a second opinion.
He was then told he had three minutes to “say goodbye to his daughter and leave the hospital,” the lawsuit says.
Organ donation already in works
At the time O’Connor was escorted from the hospital, he didn’t know his ex-wife had already signed papers to have Brittany’s organs removed, Davidson said.
The next day, Brittany’s organs were harvested. Her heart, liver and kidneys were donated to patients at Stanford Medical Center; her lungs were given to UC San Francisco for medical research. “The amount of money received for these ‘gifts’ were never disclosed,” the lawsuit says.
Davidson and Kharazi said Community Reginal Medical Center staff members never advised O’Connor that he could formally object to the transplant.
Instead, they concealed the organ donation from him, the lawsuit says. According to the lawsuit, Brittany’s medical records said: “Given these events it is ethically appropriate not to tell the patient’s father about the plan for organ recovery until after such has been accomplished.”
“In this case, the defendants suggested in its records, though not to plaintiff, that despite being removed from the organ donation decision, he could nonetheless seek court intervention to stop the cessation of life support,” the lawsuit says.
But seeking court intervention, Davidson said, would have been impractical since Community Regional Medical Center had already scheduled the operation to harvest Brittany’s organs.
Davidson and Kharazi said the organ donation was a clear violation of their client’s rights, because before Brittany was taken off life support, hospital staff intentionally approached Shawna O’Connor about donating her daughter’s organs, but avoided Mike O’Connor.
“Defendants made a calculated and fraudulent decision to not inform the plaintiff about the donations of Brittany’s organs until the harvesting had already occurred,” the lawsuit says.