When their two-year-old son M.J. died after being sent home from the ER, our clients Erika Villegas and Matthew Powell didn’t want to sit idly by. Erika explains, “We felt like something needed to be done.”
Although no settlement can heal the loss of a wrongful death, a fair settlement can provide a way to remember a loved one’s life. Erika and Matthew knew nothing would bring M.J. back, but they wanted justice and a way to honor their son’s memory.
Erika and Matthew used their settlement to commemorate M.J. with a special headstone, and they hope news of their case will help save lives. They want to tell other parents what happened to M.J. and encourage them to advocate for their own children.
“[Parents] should never stop fighting for their child,” Erika says. “Do what you think is best—no matter if you’ve got to yell to do it. Just get your point across.”
At just a few months old, M.J. had been diagnosed with panhypopituitarism. He depended on regular doses of medicine to treat the disease. When he was two, he was ill and started throwing up. Because of the vomiting, he couldn’t keep the medicine down and needed an injection.
Erika was worried, so she took him to the ER for treatment. But even after hearing about the panhypopituitarism diagnosis, the ER doctor told her to take M.J. home.
“The doctor looked at him for not even five minutes,” she remembers. “He was like, ‘He’s fine. He doesn’t need a shot. He just needs some Zofran. It’s just a little stomach bug.’”
So Erika took the doctor’s advice and brought M.J. home. He went into a coma that night and was on life support for three days before passing away. His parents believed the doctor hadn’t done his due diligence, so they contacted Johnson Jensen LLP to ask if they could pursue legal action.
“I told them what happened that night,” Erika remembers. “They were very sympathetic. … I was pregnant at the time, so I was scared that [the jury] would be like, ‘Well, she’s pregnant, she’s already moving on with her life. She doesn’t care about her son.’ … Bob reassured me that they wouldn’t do that.”
Less than two years later, the ER doctor’s medical malpractice insurance company settled with Erika and Matthew at the maximum limit under Indiana law. With the settlement, the insurance company was implicitly agreeing that the doctor made a mistake by sending M.J. away. Erika says she felt relief when she heard the news.
“We knew the doctor knew that he messed up,” she says. “We hope he won’t turn away another person like he did to our son—that he will actually take enough time and do a better job than he did with M.J.”
The settlement allowed Erika and Matthew to give M.J. a final gift. He had loved Pixar’s Cars and its main character Lightning McQueen. Before the ruling, Erika found a company that could make a custom Cars-themed headstone.
“We wanted to be able to do something one last time for him,” she explains. The headstone was exactly what she wanted to be able to give to her son, but it was expensive.
“They told us the price, and I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll wait,’” she says. “When I found out that we had reached a settlement, that was the first thing we did for him. We bought him the headstone.”
Shortly after M.J.’s death, Erika and Matthew learned they were pregnant with their second child, a daughter named Brooklyn. “I actually had the same due date as with my son,” Erika says. She believes M.J. knew he was going to be a big brother. “Before my son had passed away, he would always be like, ‘Sissy, sissy.’”
Erika and Matthew engraved “Big Brother” on the stone, and they took Brooklyn to visit M.J.’s grave and learn about her big brother. His headstone stands in the graveyard with his picture, a reminder of the sibling who loved her even before she was born.
M.J.’s headstone honors his life and shows his parents’ love for their son. By fighting for justice, Erika and Matthew hope to tell M.J.’s story and save other parents from the pain of losing a child.