March 6, 2009 — -- The parents of an 18-year-old who suffered a brain injury in a 2007 snowboarding accident say his doctors "intentionally killed" him to harvest his organs.
In the lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. District Court of Western Pennsylvania, Michael and Teresa Jacobs claim that doctors "hastened" their son Gregory Jacobs' death by delaying treatment and ultimately pulling his breathing tube, causing him to suffocate.
The couple said their son had not been formally declared brain dead when surgeons began the transplant procedure. They are seeking $5 million in damages.
"But for the intentional trauma or asphyxiation of Gregory Jacobs, he would have lived, or, at the very least, his life would have been prolonged," the lawsuit said.
The Bellevue, Ohio, family claim that if their son had been properly treated, he would have had a "significant chance of substantial recovery."
The parents have charged doctors at Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa., and a representative of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) in Pittsburgh.
In prepared statements, both Hamot Medical Center and the organ center expressed condolences to the Jacobs family.
Hamot maintained that the treatment administered was "timely, appropriate and well-documented."
"Proper consent was received in order for his organs to be donated and the protocols that were followed were consistent with all established donation procedures," it read. "Any claims otherwise are completely baseless. While we have yet to receive formal notification of a lawsuit having been filed, we will vigorously defend against any accusations of wrongdoing."
The organ center also said charges against them were "baseless and untrue."
"As in all donation cases, CORE followed all regulated medical protocols in the case," its statement read.
Gregory Jacobs suffered a "closed head injury" after a fall while on a high school-sponsored skiing trip to Peek 'n Peak Ski Resort in Findley Lake, N.Y., March 8, 2007. He died five days later after being air-lifted to Hamot.
"Essentially, the family was told that Greg was brain dead and he would not recover and, therefore, they signed a document that agreed to an organ transplant," said the Jacobs' lawyer Dennis Boyle. "Greg was not, in fact, brain dead."
Brain Death Recording Error?
According to the plaintiffs, brain death was recorded the next day, "retroactively" as life support was being withdrawn in preparation for organ removal.
In an interview with media in 2007, hospital officials acknowledged that the recorded time of death was a mistake.
"We are absolutely certain that no retrieval of any organs took place until he was pronounced dead," Dr. James Pepicello said told Erie.com. "We are aware of a discrepancy in the operative record from Hamot. It is an error in documentation."
The coroner's office initially referred the death to the Erie County district attorney's office, according to Boyle, but it declined to prosecute after hospital officials "corrected" the time of death.
The suit also alleges that the Center for Organ Recovery and Education benefited by obtaining Gregory Jacobs' organs "for transfer and sale to other individuals, who then paid money, a portion of which went to CORE, for the wrongful procurement of the organs."
Several calls by ABCNews.com to the Jacobs family were not answered, but in an interview with media in July 2007, family members said they "wanted answers."
"It's been a nightmare," Mike Jacobs told Erie.com.
He said doctors told him Gregory Jacobs' head was "full of strokes. ... Half his head was stroked. ... The other part was stroked. They showed us on the [CT] scan. There was no hope."
"From the very first day that I was there and walked into the pre-op room, I was told organ donation makes death easier," he said.
The suit alleges Mike Jacobs was pressured into signing a do-not-resuscitate order and authorizing the organ transplant. The teen's heart, liver and kidney were donated.
As soon as the order was signed, the hospital began preparing Gregory Jacobs for organ donation, the lawsuit charges.
"In fact, [brain death] was never recorded and our experts say he did not meet any criteria for brain death," Boyle told ABCNews.com.
Gregory Jacobs' Parents Not Present at Death
The parents were "in shock" and not present at their son's death. The mother "seems to have been taken out of it [decision making] completely," said Boyle. "She wanted to be present but was told she couldn't be."
"They cut my son at ten to 6, 29 minutes before they pronounced him dead," Teresa Jacobs told Erie.com last year.
The Jacobses, whom their lawyer described as an "intact, close-knit working class family," have another son who is a junior in high school.
The lawsuit was filed two years -- almost to the day -- after the accident, when the statute of limitations on such a civil lawsuit closes.
"It took them a while to find an attorney, and it us took us a while to obtain medical records for independent review and educate ourselves on what was going on," Boyle said.
The Jacobses' case illustrates the painful decision to transplant organs from dying patients, one that is fraught with ethical questions.
"You don't treat someone as a donor before they are dead," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics at University of Pennsylvania, who is not involved in the Jacobs case. "That's a big no-no."
"It's the dead donor rule to keep the public trust in place so people are not killed for parts," he told ABCNews.com.
But, he added that giving a patient a dire prognosis and signing a do-not-resuscitate order does not give the automatic green light for organ donation -- sometimes, patients and doctors don't communicate effectively.
"There can be a lot of tension managing the end of life," Caplan told ABCNews.com. "It's a gray area to manage the desire of the donor, and the family wanting to do everything they can think of in a hopeless situation."
"It's also murky. Families don't always hear what doctors are saying and doctors aren't always clear because they don't want to take away any hope," he said.
Doctors need to be "franker and blunter," he said. "Be kind, but don't sugarcoat things, otherwise people don't hear what is being said."
Families should appoint a lead decision-maker who can talk directly with the medical team.
"Groups can be very confusing and often people hear different things," he said.
Better medical protocols and training are also necessary to ensure that "patients are first, not the organs," he said.
"A donor card should not trump the managing of the dying person," he said. "Doctors have to be taught that. It is their primary duty to care for the patient."
The Jacobses' attorney said, "Some of the statements made by the doctors were susceptible to misinterpretation when they said he was brain dead."
But he still contends health officials moved too quickly to harvest Gregory Jacobs' organs.
Said Boyle, "The Jacobs[es] were always clear they wanted everything done for their son's recovery and they really didn't care if he was disabled or not."