The case of Doug Burns, bodybuilder of Mr. Universe fame and Type 1 diabetic, is in the news again. This weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle and other papers reported that he has filed suit against the city of Redwood City, CA, in federal court for $5 million in damages over what he says was excessive use of police force when he experienced insulin shock in a local movie theater a year ago in April.
According to the lawsuit, Doug was the victim not only of excessive force, but "unreasonable seizure, malicious prosecution, negligence, and assault and battery in violation of his civil rights." The RC police were in violation of the American Disabilities Act, which in this case covers Type 1 diabetes, he says.
Those of you who follow this blog will remember that we, the diabetic community, stood up for Doug when Redwood City officials tried to pin criminal charges on him, turning the incident around by blaming him for injuring several officers. We helped get the charges dropped. For goodness' sake, he was wearing a medical ID bracelet, which was ignored, and his blood sugar level was 26 mg/dL when he was arrested.
At the time, he was very clear that he was "not litigious" and wanted only to settle the matter in a positive way, hopefully by working together with officials to help train law enforcement officers to better recognize and treat hypoglycemia — which is all-too-often mistaken for drug or alcohol abuse and the victim handled like a criminal. We've all heard the stories of tasers and beatings. Doug stated clearly that he was not out to make money on this incident. He wanted to set the right example for other diabetics by not "playing the victim," and rather doing something positive for the community.
But last summer, there was already some indication that Doug indeed planned to sue the city for a lot of money. Queried at that point, Doug told me that he'd only filed a claim — not a suit — in order to nudge the authorities at Redwood City to do the right thing, by at least paying his medical expenses for injuries that were quite painful and expensive.
I'm not clear on what constitutes the difference between a claim and a suit, but the Chronicle reports that "the federal case is the upshot of a lawsuit Burns filed in state court in February after Redwood City denied a $5 million claim... Burns dropped the state case, and his lawyers refiled it this week in federal court, which his attorney Michael Haddad said was more appropriate to deal with the civil rights claims."
Last August, Doug told me: "I wrote to the folks in charge of Redwood City and let them know that I would rather resolve this in a fashion that reflects positively on the city, myself and the PWD community instead of suing. The ball has been placed in their court."
So what's happening now? I spoke to Doug on Sunday to get his side of the story, and he emailed me a statement.
According to him, it is true that he had "no initial intent of filing suit," but he and his attorneys were not able to make any progress at all in cooperating with the city. "I said I wanted to just settle this thing and maybe we can host a kids camp for some education about diabetes, and everything will be taken care of ... but they wouldn't even cover reasonable medical charges. They said 'we can't pay you unless you litigate.'"
"With the statute of limitations about to expire, I figured it safest to file — because the attorneys warned me, 'if you don't file now, you can never go back and try to reclaim your losses,'" he added.
He also says that numerous contacts in the medical community — including top brass at the ADA and JDRF — advised him not to drop the lawsuit, "because this sort of thing happens too frequently." The thought process was: "What about the 18-year-old kid who goes through the same sort of thing and ends up dead? You can't make any difference for them if you just drop it," he says.
He also expressed frustration that the press never clearly explained the severity of his injuries, making the incident sound like a minor scuffle. He sent me a statement from neurosurgeon Dr. Ronald Greenwald of Mountain View, CA, reporting "a brachial plexus lesion probably involving the posterior cord of the brachial plexus... He has continued to have numbness, tingling and ache, especially in the right shoulder area, numbness and tingling at night." The police photo of his condition at arrest, shown above, was never previously released or aired, according to Doug.
But in the end, suing for such an astronomical amount is not in his interest, he says. The lawyers jacked up the amount, because they always expect to settle for less.
"Something like this shouldn't have a $5 million dollar price tag on it. I should have had a better look at the amount. It's my fault," Doug told me.
Honestly, this is where I got a little confused, since $5 million is the amount being kicked around since July 2007.
If he should collect on that scale, he says he has many ideas of how to apply the money to the greater good: setting up kids camps, donating to a foundation for underprivileged children, or even hiring a firm to identify other victims of hypoglycemia/police force incidents around the country and paying them retribution funds.
"This has been a nightmare. It's wrecked me. Honestly I just wanted to wash it off and be done with it... I wish I could push it away in a better fashion than this big lawsuit," he says.
Dear Diabetic Community: What are your thoughts? What would you have done if you were in Doug's shoes?