The representative of a deceased patient at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Sheridan claims the hospital covered up the circumstances of the death. His estate seeks up to $11 million in damages, according to a civil lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday.

Navy veteran John Behles died on June 10, 2020, a day after suffering "a catastrophic or traumatic event -- likely either an assault or a drop/fall from a patient lift -- that resulted in a severe traumatic head injury," according to the complaint by estate representative Barbara Pierson filed by her attorney Jerome Reinan of Denver.

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The cause of death was listed as bronchopneumonia.

A VA Medical Center spokeswoman said in a voicemail to K2 Radio News that the hospital was not yet familiar with the lawsuit.

Pierson claims the hospital staff falsely reported the incident to Sheridan dispatch and that the staff documented that the fall was from bed, which was impossible because the bed was in the low position surrounded by pads and with the rails up.

However, a Medical Center nurse independently called the Sheridan County Sheriff's Department that Behles' injuries were inconsistent with a fall, and that she found the staff clean-up of blood was suspicious, according to the complaint.

That whistleblower call prompted the Medical Center's police to investigate the death.

The VAMC police interviewed several medical providers who suggested Behles' injuries were inconsistent with a fall and that hospital staff had destroyed important evidence, according to the complaint. "The VAMC police also found evidence of a cover-up of the true cause of Behles''s catastrophic and traumatic head injuries."

That evidence included:

  • A delay in calling 911.
  • Chart notes didn't appear contemporaneous with the fall.
  • Chart notes were inconsistent about the times and sequence of the events of the injury.
  • Chart notes contained wrong dates.
  • The appearance that the director of nursing called staff together to ensure their reports were consistent.
  • Behles was found near the bathroom and not by his bed.
  • Behles was physically incapable of getting out of bed without assistance.
  • The hospital was short-staffed.

"As a result of these various reports; the whistleblower call to the Sheriff's Department; and the VAMC police investigation; Plaintiff believes, and is otherwise informed, that Behles's traumatic injury was the result of either an assault of being mishandled or dropped by a VAMC staff member, resulting in a coordinated, concerted and organized cover-up of the facts surrounding the incident by various members of VAMC staff," according to the complaint.

The Medical Center is owned and operated by the United States of America, which owed Behles a duty of care including providing sufficient, trained and supervised staff; a duty to accurately document the facts about his care; and a duty to investigate and document the cause of any injuries.

The U.S. failed to provide those duties, engaged in a cover-up, and made false reports to Behles' responsible family members and investigators, according to the complaint

Pierson timely notified the Veterans Administration of Behles' estate's claims, but its legal team denied her claims in a May 6, 2022, letter to her attorney Reinan.

"The independent medical/nursing evaluation of the veteran's records found no breach(es) of the applicable standard of care resulting in injury with regard to the fall suffered by Mr. Behles on June 9, 2020, and that finding is corroborated by the autopsy report," according to the VA letter accompanying the complaint.

The VA said Pierson could sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and that resulted in the present lawsuit.

Pierson wants a trial and damages consistent with the FTCA not to exceed $11 million, according to the complaint.

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