BELIZE CITY–When the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) upheld the lower court rulings this April in favor of Janae Matute, 14, who had sued the Government of Belize and Dr. Raju Meenavalli through her next of kin, her mother, for miscalculating the expected date of her delivery, thereby causing her to develop cerebral palsy, there was jubilant celebration in the family.
However, 8 months later, no payment has been made to the child, and the distressed family, who has been battling in the courts for more than a decade, has now decided to come public with an impassioned appeal to the Government to spread the season’s cheer.
“This case went on through the courts for 12 years; not one cent has been paid to Janae,” her attorney, Fred Lumor, SC, said at a press conference held at his office this morning.
Lumor lamented that the way that Janae has been treated by the Government is “a crying shame!”
On April 10, 2014, the CCJ upheld the Court of Appeal decision and awarded the family over $2 million in damages after they found Georgia Matute’s gynecologist, Dr. Raju Meenavalli, liable for miscalculating her due date—an error which the courts believe caused Janae to develop her lifelong disability.
Meenavalli was accused of having miscalculated the stage of the mother’s pregnancy, and so Janae was delivered at 34 weeks of gestation via C-section, the CCJ noted.
The court declared that “…Dr. Raju’s medical error in calculating the gestational age of Janae was not only a breach of the common standard of care applicable to medical practitioners, but also of the standard of care applicable to specialists in the field of obstetrics and gynecology.”
Lumor, who has been on the case for the last 12 years, since Janae was 2, recounted to the media this morning that Janae had suffered oxygen deprivation at birth, leading to her disability. He noted that last Saturday, Janae celebrated her 14th birthday and being a teenager, she has even more needs now than before.
In reviewing the legal background to the case, Lumor noted that Justice Samuel Awich, then Supreme Court judge, had ruled against Dr. Meenavalli, but he “let the Government off the hook,” Lumor said. Both Meenavalli and the Matutes appealed Awich’s decision.
On March 30, 2012, the Court of Appeal handed down its ruling, declaring that indeed, the Government was liable. The court reduced the award, though, from $2.5 million to $2.13 million.
“Nobody and absolutely nobody expects a responsible government to refuse to obey a decision of the highest court of this land, especially in respect of a disabled child. Not in my dreams did I ever expect that this would ever happen,” Lumor told the media today.
He said that there is no money to provide for the special needs of the child, and the wheelchair which she uses to get around is a used chair from a religious organization. She needs a proper wheelchair as well as alterations to her living quarters, Lumor explained.
He said that while the court can order contempt proceedings against the Minister of Finance and the Financial Secretary and hold them personally responsible, if no payment is received by year-end, he will be forced to launch constitutional proceedings in the Supreme Court, claiming that the refusal to pay is deprivation of property under Belize Constitution.
That, Lumor said, may take another 3 or 4 years, or even more for the matter to be concluded, but that may be the only recourse, since, he said, it is not possible to crowfoot the assets of the Government.
“What I need to emphasize is that the Government of Belize did not appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal, so the obligation of the Government to make payment against Janae and the mother accrued on 30 March, 2012, but as I am talking to you this morning, not one cent has been paid to this child and the mother,” Lumor told the press.
Lumor said that when Nigel Hawke became the acting Solicitor General in May 2014, he made all the court papers, as well as full chronology, available to Hawke, and Hawke assured him that Financial Secretary Joseph Waight would deal with Janae’s case after the budget exercise was wrapped up. After the budget exercise, though, the Ministry of Finance got tied up with the salary negotiations for teachers and public officers. Those talks have long concluded, and Lumor said that no payment has yet been made to Janae.
“I am still waiting…,” Janae’s mother, Georgia Matute, confirmed.
Lumor said he felt that the continued delay had become unacceptable, so on 23 October 2014, he wrote the Financial Secretary personally, requesting that payment be settled, “given the unwarranted hardship the child continues to endure.”
Lumor also attached a spreadsheet with the financial data as of October 31, 2014 and pleaded with the Government to take urgent steps to put a payment schedule in place; however, Lumor said that he has received no response to that letter.
He said that he called the office of Mr. Waight three or four times after the letter was sent off, but was told that he was not at his desk.
Georgia Matute made attempts to personally see Financial Secretary Waight and Prime Minister Dean Barrow, Minister of Finance. Two trips to their offices over the past month were to no avail. The secretaries at both offices promised they would forward Matute’s concerns and get back to her. Waight’s secretary did call Matute, only to convey a message to her that the Financial Secretary needs some more clarity with respect to the payment.
“What else do they need?” Matute questioned.
According to Lumor, as of October 31, 2014, the total judgment against the Government of Belize stood at roughly $2.5 million, and for every day that Janae is not paid, interest accrues at $128.08.
Lumor said that while they are pursuing the Government for the full settlement awarded by the CCJ, the court, in dismissing Meenavalli’s appeal, awarded the Matute’s costs of about $110,000. He said that they are currently in talks with Meenavalli’s attorney, Godfrey Smith, SC, to seek settlement of that award for costs.
Lumor publicly apologized to Janae and her mother today for not pursuing the matter more aggressively, because, Lumor said, he took the Government at its word when they said that they would attend to Janae’s payment. He continues to appeal to the Government of Belize to take steps to fulfill its obligation to Janae.
According to Lumor, the Government lawyer, Hawke, had said numerous times that Government would work out payments over a period of time, and the family agreed that that arrangement would be fine.
Today, we were unable to reach the Financial Secretary when we called his office in Belmopan, but we did get to speak with his deputy, Marion Palacio, who told us that the Ministry remains committed to settling the matter. He said that there had been discussions about working out a payment schedule for Janae. According to Palacio, although that payment “may not be before Christmas,” it is “imminent.”
Lumor explained that any payment arrangement and any monies disbursed to the child have to be approved by the Supreme Court, and any expenditure incurred on behalf of the child by her mother has to be approved by a judge of the court before that disbursement can be made.
“Since this is the season, as the government loves to say, everybody ought to be in Christmas cheer; I am only hoping that they would put Janae and the mother in the position where they could also enjoy that cheer,” said Lumor.
“Roll it this way, nuh!” Matute concurred.
Matute and Lumor also make a public appeal to Special Envoy for Women and Children, Kim Simplis Barrow, the Prime Minister’s wife, who plays a very influential role in government initiatives for the disabled. They call on her to help ensure that Janae gets the financial award due to her.
“Please, we need the help,” said Matute, who told the press that her worst nightmare of not being able to carry her child alone to take care of her daily needs – such as bathing her, have come to fruition, since Janae is now a fully grown young lady whose weight is more than average due to her condition, despite the fact that the girl is slim-built.
Matute quit her government job to take care of her child. She was also awarded a portion of the $2.5 million as special and general damages amounting to roughly $800,000. Janae’s award includes $240,000 for three vehicles during her lifetime, $180,000 as loss of future earnings (the Court of Appeal had reduced the figure from $708,203 to this figure), $170,000 for future accommodations, and $227,000 for future caregivers. Janae’s award totals $1.5 million.
Her mother hopes that the funds could be used to finance therapy to make life more livable for her daughter. She said that medical experts had told her that ages 0 to 5 were the most critical years for therapy, but she remains hopeful.