After finding the Veterans Health Administration liable earlier this year for the suicide of an Iraq war veteran, a federal judge has awarded more than $480,000 to his father and two children.
In what was thought to be one of the few verdicts of its kind, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ruled in February that the negligence of the VA directly contributed to the death of Cpl. William Draughon of Kansas City.
Draughon was a squad leader and gunner in Iraq for seven months in 2004 before he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps.
After he returned to the Kansas City area, he began drinking heavily and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. During one of several hospitalizations at the Kansas City VA, he’d been flagged as being at high risk for suicide. Although no risk assessment was done, a suicide prevention coordinator at the hospital removed the high-risk flag from his electronic medical records 90 days later.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2010, after arguing with his girlfriend, Draughon shot and killed himself in front of his girlfriend and brother. He was 28 years old.
His family, believing the VA had been negligent in its care of Draughon, sued the agency. Robinson’s order finding it liable is thought to be one of the few instances anywhere in the country where the VA has been held directly responsible for a veteran’s suicide.
In her ruling Monday, she awarded noneconomic damages – for pain and suffering and loss of companionship – of $125,000 to each of Draughon’s two young children, $75,000 to Draughon’s father and $1,000 to his biological mother. She also divided up another $154,608 in economic damages between the children and Draughon’s father.
“I think it’s notable that she didn’t decrease the award at all for what we call comparative fault or comparative negligence. The government had alleged that some of the fault should rest with Cpl. Draughon as well, and she didn’t decrease the award at all on that basis,” said Michael Raupp, an attorney at the Husch Blackwell firm who represented the Draughons.
Larry McMullen, another Husch Blackwell lawyer involved in the case, said they were hoping for a larger award, but the court was constrained by the cap Missouri imposes on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. The cap used to be $350,000 but was increased by the Legislature several years ago to $700,000.
“We would have preferred she split the money three (equal) ways,” McMullen said. “But she said, no, these kids are going to live a whole lot longer than his dad and therefore will be deprived of his comfort and support for a lot longer than him and therefore I’m going to give them a little bit more.”
The VA has 60 days to appeal Robinson’s finding of liability and award of damages. A spokesman for the agency did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies