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A Montana judge has ruled in favor of a family claiming a care facility in Billings caused the wrongful death of a quadriplegic man who was injured at the facility and died from ensuing health complications.

In January 2014, the quadriplegic man's hip was fractured when a physical therapist, Bridget Mennie, working for Advanced Care lifted him herself, struggled to carry him, and put weight on his left leg. That weight fractured his hip.

Kevin Duecker died on November 8, 2017 at the age of 62 after being injured in January of 2014.

Bridget Mennie broke a policy requiring Duecker, who's fragility made him a high risk of musculoskeletal injury, be lifted by a mechanical lift. When leaving for the weekend she didn't leave care instructions, which delayed medical attention for the injury for five days.

That fracture ultimately lead to Duecker’s death and the posthumous legal battle.

On May 15, Advanced Care Hospital, Inc. paid $505,000 to the family following a judgment from Judge Michael Moses that said Advanced Care had caused Duecker’s death. The case originally began in 2016 opened by Duecker himself as a negligence claim. After his death his family claimed it was a wrongful.

In an email Advanced Care Chief Executive Officer Judi Powers said that the judgment was "expressly not an admission of any liability" from the company. She declined to make further comments. 

Bridget Mennie declined to comment for this story. Currently, Mennie is still employed at Advanced Care. She has also served on the State Board of Physical Therapy Examiners since February 2019. The office is Governor elected, and board member terms last three years.

Advanced Care Hospital, Inc. provides long-term care and rehabilitation care for patients, recovering from injuries, complicated medical needs, or illnesses. It's part of the larger health network Ernest Health. Advanced Care came to Billings in 2008, and cares for about 400 patients yearly, according to their website.

The fracture

Only a few seconds of weight was put on Kevin Duecker’s left leg before a loud “pop” rang through a small gymnasium at the Billings care facility.

A quadriplegic for 40 years Duecker had next to no mobility from the neck down, and was reliant on caregivers for essentially everything. 

In 2002, Duecker won a discrimination lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Investigations, saying they didn't hire him for a fiscal analyst position in St. Louis because of his quadriplegia.

He won $500,000 in the lawsuit. Duecker went on to start his own accounting firm, Duecker & Associates, in 2001 in Billings.

He ran the business until his death. As a quadriplegic he had several long-term health complications. In October 2012 he underwent muscle flap surgery to address ulcers. 

Since December of 2013, Duecker had been recovering from the surgery at Advanced Care. He was close to being discharged, according to court documents.

On Friday, Jan. 9, 2014, despite an Advanced Care policy stating that Duecker must be moved by a mechanical lift, a physical therapist lifted him herself. Duecker had asked the physical therapist, Bridget Mennie, to use a mechanical lift, court docs say.

She ignored him and another caregiver that suggested she get a mechanical lift, and instead lifted him by his pant's waistband and leaned him over her shoulder to place a pad in the seat of his wheelchair.

“I can’t help you,” Duecker said, when Mennie tried to sling his arms around her neck.

While resting on her shoulders his legs dragged beneath him. His left hip fractured from his body weight on his left leg. He, Mennie, and several other caregivers in the gym heard his hip bone pop.

That day Mennie left for her weekend and left no special instructions with staff or her supervisor for Duecker to be X-rayed or checked for injuries.

Mennie's supervisor was not informed of the pop or injury until the lawsuit was filed, according to court documents. In court documents her supervisor said she expects her therapists to report an injury to her immediately. Mennie never did, she said.

In the five days following the injury, Duecker’s hip became seriously infected. The injury wasn’t addressed until the following Tuesday when Mennie, who had returned to work on Monday, noted that he may need an X-ray for the injury. During that time Duecker said he began to feel ill.

The “very toxic” infection was introduced where the tip of his hip had broken off. A cure “may or may not even be conceivable” Duecker’s doctors had told him.

With few care options Duecker and his doctor's decided on a “Girdlestone procedure," which removed the infected hip entirely. They replaced his left hip with an antibiotic pack to try and kill the infection, but the infection never left his system.

Complications from the surgery included bed sores up his legs and buttocks, he lost spastic movement of his left leg, and his seating position changed causing new types of bed sores. Some sores became infected and wounds even bore into his bones.

Ensuing complications

In the two years following the surgery, Duecker suffered from severe repercussions from his hip removal, the court documents say.

During this time Duecker began to feel discouraged and depressed, his younger siblings Kurt Duecker and Kelley Nelson said.

"(Duecker) also sought professional counseling for severe depression and anxiety following the injury to his left hip and subsequent complications," the claim states.

Due to deteriorating health Duecker had a hard time maintaining his accounting firm, Duecker & Associates. His initial injury happened right before tax season and hampered his ability to work, Nelson said in an interview with The Gazette.

"He was feeling good and doing good, and was optimistic about the new tax year and then he called me and said ‘I think they broke my hip’ and it was just devastating to him," Nelson said. "He was still trying to do taxes. It was horrific trying to sit at his computer."

During the two years he lost an estimated 100 clients, about a third of his total clients, from his accounting firm, according to the claim. In addition to pain and intermittent bed rest, Duecker also lost the little function he had in his left hand after his hip was removed, the claim states.

He required that hand to type on his computer for work, his brother said. Duecker would use a pencil in his left hand and a mouth stick to type.

Medical costs, attorney costs, and stagnating revenue meant that Duecker was relying on his siblings for income.

About two years after the first injury, the infection that originally began in his left hip had progressed down into his left leg despite the antibiotics. In May 2017 his leg was amputated from the knee down.

In October, his right leg was amputated from the same infections. Duecker died in November.

"He fought a courageous battle," Nelson said. "I’ve never known anyone to fight like him, but he finally succumbed."

The case

In the midst of health issues Duecker filed a negligence claim against Advanced Health Care in December 2016, alleging the hip fracture led to financial and physical damage and required restitution.

He’d often complain of the slow progress to his younger siblings. Holding onto the case gave him a reason to live, Nelson said.

“That was the one thing that kept him going, in his hearts of hearts he knew he was going to pay us back for the money,” Nelson said.

After his death, Kurt and Nelson were faced with deciding to continue the case as a wrongful death claim.

"When he died you’re sort of left with 'Wow, what do we do now?'" Kurt said.

Since 2016, they've pursued the wrongful death claim against Advanced Care. The process was painful for Nelson and Kurt.

“I was reliving my brother’s life and death for however many years since it happened,” Kurt said.

Nelson and Kurt have said they’ve found a relative amount of closure from the judgment, but are still bothered that Duecker never got to see the case through.

“Kevin isn’t enjoying the fruits of his labor,” Nelson said. “It would’ve made such a difference in his life if it was solved a long time ago and he had gotten a monetary amount from it.”

Kurt felt the same frustration as his sister.

“What would have been so hard about (settling) it 3-4 years ago?” he said. “It’s a day late and a dollar short, both literally and figuratively.”

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