Medical bill claims denied

Friday, August 20, 2010
Faris Beard of Belfast pages through the medical bills, government letters, claims and other documents related to illness suffered by her son, Brian Cuff, one of the community college students who suffered from carbon monoxide gas inhalation in April.

At least two Columbia State Community College students sickened by a carbon monoxide leak last spring are stuck between the state and Lewisburg because neither will accept responsibility for the leak.

"We've been left hanging, dangling in the air with very high medical bills, almost $3,000," Faris Beard of Belfast said Wednesday of the predicament she's in with her son, Brian Cuff, 19, one of nearly 30 people who felt ill on April 8.

PVC pipes were used to carry exhaust from heating units at the community college, but according to the city's investigation, one of the pipes was knocked aside and dislocated from a boot at the heater. The fixture had been held in place by a large hose clamp.

Cuff was one of a few who were sent to Maury Regional Medical Center from Marshall Medical Center. His mother is a registered nurse who works in the emergency room in Columbia. She was off duty when Cuff was received where she works.

"He was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning," Beard said. "They like to use the word exposure."

As instructed by college announcements, Cuff went to the school's Web site, printed out claim forms and reported he "was exposed to the gas for about three and a half hours before being evacuated by the fire department."

He was hospitalized "for 24 hours on oxygen to displace the carbon monoxide in my system," Cuff wrote to in his claim for damages.

Bills totaling $2,751.45 are now past due and collection agencies are calling for payment.

State Treasury Department Clams Examiner Jason Davis on July 15 acknowledged receipt of Cuff's request for payment of the medical bills, saying the state is denying the claim "because there is no evidence to indicate that any injury occurred that was proximately caused by the negligence of CSCC officials."

The building is owned by Lewisburg and it's responsible for the safety and maintenance of the building, Davis wrote, suggesting Cuff file a claim with the city. However, Davis said, Cuff could file a claim with the state Claims Commission within 90 days of the July 15 letter.

The Tennessee Claims Commission operates administrative law courts to deal with such matters before they're taken to civil court.

City Manager Eddie Fuller says the college building was constructed by the city and the county so the school could have a campus here but, generally, his position has been that there was some misuse of the building.

In April, he pointed to photos showing a lawnmower gas can was stored on the side of a ladder in the furnace room and both were leaning against an electric space heater. His interpretation of the situation is that someone working for the college knocked the exhaust pipe when moving the ladder in the room and as a result the gas was released. He also points out that a pressure washer was being stored in the room. It's not a storage room. It's a furnace room.

Lewisburg is insured through the Tennessee Municipal League's Risk Management pool, and Danya Feinstein, a claims adjuster for TML wrote to Cuff on Aug. 11 saying TML believes "the circumstances do not represent legal liability on the part of our insured (Lewisburg.)"

Beard's son, Cuff, isn't the only student facing such circumstances.

Judi Sherrill of Lewisburg says her daughter, Keisha, is receiving collection notices and has posted information about it on her Facebook page to get more names of students who also suffered.

"She came in that day complaining of headaches, and not feeling well," said Sherrill who works at a convenience store on Ellington Parkway.

Keisha Sherrill vomited when she got home, so they called the college. Without an immediate reply, they drove to Marshall Medical Center and while driving there someone at the college called saying she should be going to an emergency room.

Keisha Sherrill had headaches and was dizzy. At the emergency room they were told to by pass forms and to immediately go for treatment because she had breathed carbon monoxide fumes at the college.

"She was one of the lucky ones," Judi Sherrill. "She tested low. She stayed on the breathing apparatus for about an hour. She's OK, but we've got this bill from Marshall Medical Center.

Without paperwork at hand, Judi Sherrill spoke of bills that totaled nearly $1,100. Judi Sherrill is a single mother. Her daughter works at Burger King part-time and goes to CSCC full time studying art and web design.

"She's fine now," Judi Sherrill said. "There's no reaction. I just want the bill paid. I don't want repercussions."

CSCC spokesman Paul Hickey said the city, "as owner of the building and the entity responsible for the safety and maintenance of the building, including the heating and cooling systems, was responsible for the carbon monoxide leak incident."

Offering explanations similar to those of the state claims examiner, Hickey said, that office "could not justify the expenditure of state taxpayer dollars to pay for claims which it determined were not the state's responsibility and informed students who had filed claims to present the claim to the Office of the City Manager, City of Lewisburg."

Acknowledging Lewisburg's position from an unofficial source, Hickey said, "The Tennessee Board of Regents is reaching out to the City of Lewisburg's insurance company to confirm its denial of the claims and, assuming the denial is accurate, requesting that the City and its insurance company reconsider their decision."

Fuller said the city's response could be the very same letter with a few references changed.

A more formal response from the city appears to be forthcoming, but the bottom line appeared to be that the city would prefer that the students find legal representation, sue the state and the city because the city feels confident that a judge would see that the fault lies with the state.

A cursory review of the information available at press time tends to indicate that the total of the medical bills could be less than $25,000, but without more information the estimate is only generally acknowledged by the city.

Several sources have said one of the students exposed to carbon monoxide was pregnant at the time. The child was born in recent months and unconfirmed information indicates that it's healthy.