The widower of a Black woman who died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s second son is taking aim at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and its parent health system for a second time by filing a civil rights lawsuit alleging she received inferior care because of the color of her skin, after another judge tossed the allegations earlier this year.
An autopsy showed that Charles Johnson’s wife, Kira, died from massive internal bleeding following a planned cesarean section in April 2016, according to a release from Johnson’s attorney. The lawsuit alleges the length of the surgery – 17 minutes – was “reckless.”
Less than two hours after Kira Johnson’s surgery to deliver their son, her husband noticed blood in her catheter bag, according to the lawsuit. Just over an hour later, a “surgical emergency” CT scan was ordered for Kira. The scan never happened, according to the filing, and she wasn’t taken back to the operating room to find the source of the bleeding until well after midnight, despite her husband’s pleas for help. By then, it was too late to save her. Kira Johnson died of a postpartum hemorrhage.
The new court filing alleging racial discrimination cites details gleaned from depositions in a separate wrongful death lawsuit filed by Johnson against the medical center and several of its doctors.
The earlier wrongful death lawsuit is set to go to trial next week. In court filings from that lawsuit, Cedars-Sinai argued that deposition testimony from witnesses does “not support a claim that there was any intentional discrimination directed at the decent.” The judge agreed with that argument in January and declined to amend the suit to include civil rights violations.
Johnson’s lawyers said their clients were not the only ones whose skin color affected their treatment.
“The hard facts that we have uncovered speak directly to the point that there is a culture of racism that is rampant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,” Johnson said at a news conference Tuesday. He has been publicly advocating on issues related to his wife’s death for years.
“The color of one’s skin simply cannot be allowed to influence the quality of care one receives when they walk into a hospital,” Nick Rowley, one of Johnson’s attorneys, said in a news release.
In 2020, the maternal death rate for Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births – 2.9 times the rate for White women, according to a report from the new National Center for Health Statistics released in February by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I believe that some of those surgeons that was on that field, in particular, the ones that just drug out their decision making, in my heart, I felt that, is it due to her being a woman of color. Yes, in my opinion,” surgical technician Angelique Washington testified in May 2021 of the delay in treatment. “When I see the Black patients come in, I say an extra prayer. And that has been my creed of my career to this day; I say a silent prayer that all goes well. Because you do have racism very much so in the operating room,” she testified.
Earlier this year, the judge overseeing the wrongful death action found that “Washington’s speculation as to whether Dixon’s color played a role in the medical treatment Dixon received does not support Plaintiffs’ new allegations that Defendants discriminated against Dixon based on her race.”
Additional testimony referenced included Washington’s comments that she had seen women of color treated differently “all my career.” A Cedars-Sinai doctor also said that she thought Black women didn’t receive the same quality of care because of structural racism, saying that “I live that every day.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that Kira would be here today if she were a White woman,” said Johnson. “Institutions must be held accountable for enabling cultures of racism and bias that have fatal consequences for Black and brown mothers. My hope is that by filing this suit we will send a clear message to institutions who have failed our families for far too long that we will no longer tolerate racism in the medical treatment we receive.”
The new lawsuit requests damages, attorney fees and other costs but does not specify a specific amount.
“Cedars-Sinai was founded on the principles of diversity, inclusion and quality health care for all. We reject any mischaracterization of our culture and values. While disparities exist throughout our society, we are actively working to eradicate unconscious bias in health care and advance equity in health care more broadly,” Cedars-Sinai told CNN in a statement. “We commend Mr. Johnson for the attention he has brought to the important issue of racial disparities in maternal outcomes. While federal privacy laws prevent us from responding directly about any patient’s care, we have a longstanding commitment to making any changes to ensure we provide patients with the highest level of care.”
CNN’s Stella Chan contributed to this report.