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July 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nine Million Dollar Wrongful Death Lawsuit

instructor and even physician sued

from the July, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In 2015, Cindy Burns of Stayton, OR, bought her husband scuba diving lessons so he'd be ready for their trip to Hawaii to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. A year later, her family is bringing a $9 million wrongful death suit against the doctor who cleared 51-year-old Tim Burns for diving and the local scuba store that led his dive.

The complaint says that on March 3, 2015, Burns filled out a medical questionnaire, noting he was taking prescription meds for high blood pressure, had asthma, and had previously undergone sinus surgery. Because of his answers, Salem Scuba required Burns to have his doctor sign a medical statement saying Burns had no conditions that were incompatible with diving.

The next day, Dr. Paul Neumann signed the statement and prescribed Burns with a rescue inhaler for symptomatic asthma. He noted that Burns' asthma symptoms were fluctuating, that he had an upper respiratory infection and had high blood pressure.

PADI guidelines state that an asthmatic diver should show no symptoms and should be able to breathe normally before and after an exercise test. The form Dr. Neumann was given to sign indicated guidelines were available, but Neumann allegedly didn't review them and did not conduct an exercise test.

Burns completed two certification dives with Mike Laharty, a Salem Scuba instructor, but the next day he suffered an asthma attack during his second dive and had to abort.

Two weeks later, Burns completed two certification dives with Mike Laharty, a Salem Scuba instructor, but the next day he suffered an asthma attack during his second dive and had to abort. Another Salem Scuba instructor saw Burns using as inhaler on the beach.

The following day, March 22, Laharty took Burns to 60 feet, and within minutes, he indicated he was out of air. Laharty performed an emergency uncontrolled ascent to the surface, but failed to maintain control of Burns and had to swim back down to grab him. Upon surfacing, Burns was barely responsive, and Laharty called for help, but medics were unable to revive Burns.

An autopsy revealed Burns suffered from chronic bronchial asthma with early pneumonitis, dilated cardiomyopathy, and chronic emphysema. The cause of death was cardiac dysrhythmia associated with scuba diving and an enlarged heart, with chronic asthma being a contributing factor.

According to the lawsuit, Neumann should have performed tests, which would have disqualified Burns from diving, reviewed the diving guidelines, known that the blood pressure medicine prescribed was inadvisable with diving, and that symptomatic asthma was inadvisable with diving. The instructors should have known Burns was at risk of severe injury or death if he continued diving after having an asthma attack; they didn't safely monitor Burns' air supply and allowed him to consume air too quickly, which created an out-of-air emergency; and didn't maintain control of Laharty's backup regulator and buoyancy compensatory device, which allowed Burn's backup regulator to fall out of his mouth. The suit names the doctor, his clinic, the instructor and dive store owner as negligent.

Clearly, this is an unfortunate tragedy, but it reminds us that in a preponderance of diving deaths, the deceased is frequently harboring all sorts of medical conditions that worsen or become triggered when diving. When did you have your last complete medical?

(From a report in the Statesman Journal by Kaellen Hessel)

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