The family of Olympic track star Florence Griffith Joyner is placing blame for her death on a St. Louis hospital, charging in a lawsuit that doctors failed to detect a brain abnormality two years before she died.
Joyner was rushed to Washington University's Barnes-Jewish Hospital in April 1996 after suffering a seizure on her flight into St. Louis, where she was to attend a relay race.
The lawsuit, secretly filed in a Missouri court using pseudonyms, says the hospital staff improperly interpreted an MRI and other tests. The family argues that the tests should have uncovered her medical condition, in which the blood vessels in the brain constrict and cause seizures.
The family accuses the hospital of neglecting to compare those scans with prior tests and not reviewing her prior medical records. Joyner died in her Mission Viejo home in September 1998 at age 38. The Orange County coroner concluded that she suffered an epileptic seizure and likely suffocated in her bedding.
The plaintiffs are listed as Al "Jones", Mary Ruth "Jones" and the estate of Florence "Jones." Sources close to the case said the actual plaintiffs are Al Joyner, Florence's husband; Mary Ruth Joyner, her young daughter; and the estate of Florence Griffith Joyner.
It's unclear whether other family members have joined the suit, but at least one--the track star's mother, Florence D. Griffith--has not and said Monday that she does not support it.
Medical malpractice experts said that if the family is to prevail, it must prove that the care the athlete received fell below the industry standard and contributed significantly to her death.
"Normally, if [hospital officials] think they didn't do anything wrong, they won't settle these cases. But it's a high-publicity case, and it evokes some sympathy," said Marshall Silberberg, a medical malpractice defense attorney whose clients include UCI Medical Center.
UCLA law professor Gary Schwartz said it is relatively common for families to file lawsuits accusing doctors of failing to diagnose fatal conditions. Those suits are difficult to win, he said, but Joyner's celebrity status makes this case a bit different.
"Hospitals don't want publicity. That might increase the hospital's motivation to settle," Schwartz said. "The hospital might fear a sympathetic jury and more publicity to the case because of her celebrity."
Barnes-Jewish Hospital is one of the top-ranked hospitals in the country. Last month, U.S. News and World Report published a survey that ranked Barnes-Jewish as having the ninth best neurology department in the nation. The same survey listed Barnes-Jewish as the seventh best hospital in the country overall.
The hospital declined to comment on the suit, citing its policy against discussing pending litigation. Al Joyner's attorney, Paul Meyer, said his client "prefers to make no statement at this point."
Florence Griffith Joyner's death stunned sports fans across the world. Known to fans as "FloJo," Joyner set world records in the 100 and 200 meter dashes and tied an Olympic record by winning four medals, three of them gold, at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
The athlete's unexpected death spurred a series of lawsuits within her family, but those matters appear to be resolved.
Al Joyner and his late wife's mother have dropped three lawsuits they filed against each other after the athlete's death, according to court records.
Two of the cases pertained to a Rancho Santa Margarita condominium, owned by the Joyners, where the track star's mother lived rent-free since 1991. Al Joyner attempted to evict 70-year-old Florence D. Griffith from the condominium after his wife's death, prompting the litigation.
In her lawsuit, the mother contended that her daughter and son-in-law told her she could live in the condominium for the rest of her life. She sought an order enabling her to keep the condominium; Al Joyner filed a counter lawsuit seeking to evict his mother-in-law.
The court records do not indicate whether Griffith was allowed to continue living in the condo.
Griffith also dropped a second lawsuit in May that had accused Al Joyner of negligence that she alleged contributed to her daughter's death.
Griffith maintains that family members were aware of her daughter's health condition and that the hospital is not at fault.
"I will be with the doctors; I will not be with him," said Griffith, meaning Al Joyner. "I don't care how much money it is, it will not bring my daughter back. It will not replace what I lost, not for me, not for my family."