A California woman died six years ago after giving birth to her baby boy in one of the top hospitals in the nation. Her family says a botched cesarean section led to their loved one slowly bleeding to death before dying on an operating table 12 hours after the delivery.
Kyira “Kira” Johnson’s husband, Charles Johnson IV, is reaching the culmination of his years-long pursuit of a wrongful-death lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Kira Johnson and her husband with their first child, Charles V (Family Photo)
Last week he and his attorneys announced the filing of a separate civil rights lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai, one that claims the hospital has a culture of systemic bias against Black patients that contributed to the 39-year-old dying after what was supposed to be a routine C-section in 2016.
Lawsuit documents obtained by Atlanta Black Star state the woman “was dependent on the defendants for the lifesaving medical treatment that she needed,” and further allege there is a culture of racism at the institution that can be proven by testimony and statistics.
The claim also alleges Johnson was “denied full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, and services because of her race/color as a Black woman.”
On Wednesday, May 4, Charles Johnson — who is the son of TV judge Glenda Hatchett — and attorney Nicholas Rowley held a news conference on a sidewalk in front of Cedars-Sinai and spoke about Kyira Johnson, and how they say her death could have been prevented if staff at the hospital had acknowledged her humanity. The new lawsuit grew out of findings Johnson’s lawyers obtained as they pursued the malpractice case they first filed in 2017.
On April 12, 2016, then-pregnant Johnson was scheduled for a C-section to give birth to her son Langston. This would have been her second cesarean birth, as she had one with her first son, Charles V. Her family, including her husband, wished her well as medics whisked her into an operating room. Video captured her last kiss with her son before doctors started the procedure.
The legal complaint describes the C-section as rushed and done sloppily. “The surgery was done recklessly,” the claim states. “The time, start to finish, was a mere 17 minutes.” According to Cleveland Clinic, a typical c-section on average can take 45 minutes.
The mother’s bladder had been lacerated during the C-section. She began complaining of pain and growing progressively weaker.
Johnson described to CNN in February 2020 how his fears about his wife’s deteriorating condition were handled by the Cedars-Sinai staff that day.
“I can see the Foley catheter [which drains urine from the bladder] coming from Kira’s bedside turn pink with blood,” Johnson said.
“I just held her by her hand and said, ‘Please look, my wife isn’t doing well.’ This woman looked me directly in my eye and said, ‘Sir, your wife is not a priority right now.’ It wasn’t until 12.30 a.m. the next morning that they finally took the decision to take Kira back to surgery,” he added.
When she at last was taken to emergency surgery, doctors found more than three liters of blood pooled in her abdomen, Johnson says. The average adult body has less than five liters of blood. Kyira Johnson died on the operating table.
Six years later, Charles Johnson says he believes racism played a part in her death. He held a news conference about his case with one of his attorneys, Nicholas Rowley of Trial Lawyers for Justice, and other community advocates in front of Cedars-Sinai on May 4.
The widower told reporters gathered to hear him outside the hospital, “I trusted this place with the thing in my life that was most precious.”
“Because of the things we have learned through this incredibly painful process,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that my wife would be here today and be here Sunday celebrating Mother’s Day with her boys if she was a Caucasian woman.”
“The reality is that on April 12, 2016, when we walked into Cedars-Sinai hospital for what we expected to be the happiest day of our lives, the greatest risk factor that Kira Dixon Johnson faced was racism,” he continued.
The attorney Rowley, standing next to Johnson outside of Cedars-Sinai last week, described the C-section as botched.
“This is sloppy,” Rowley said. “It was butchery. It shocked everybody that we deposed, all the health care providers, even the head of [obstetrics] here, the head of labor and delivery, looked at it and said ‘No, I’ve never seen one done that fast.”’
Rowley contends, supported by the testimony of essential workers employed by the hospital, there is a systemic issue of racism that does not give priority to Black people. The court filing alleges there is a disparity in the care women of color receive at Cedars compared to white women.
Angelique Washington, who works as a surgical technologist at Cedars-Sinai, says she leans on her faith when it comes to the care of the Black people at the institution. She said on video that she prays for Black people.
“When I see my Black … patients come in, I say an extra prayer,” Washington confessed in her deposition. “I say a silent prayer that all goes well. Because you do have racism very much so in the operating room.”
Court papers quoted Dr. Kimberly Gregory, an obstetrician, and gynecologist at the hospital, saying “structural racism” exists and it stops Black patients from receiving the equitable care as their whites counterparts. Gregory also said Johnson should have been brought back to surgery far sooner than she was.
Dr. Sarah Kilpatrick, chair of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department, said she said to Johnson, “I’m sorry. We failed your family. … This shouldn’t have happened.”
Johnson’s attorneys say there is sufficient evidence to prove the hospital engaged in bigoted practices — using race as a subconscious and/or conscious barometer for care — but Brietta Clark, a professor at Loyola Law School, told The Associated Press last week that proving a civil rights case against the hospital will be hard. The legal team will have to prove the discrimination against Kyira Johnson was intentional.
“Compared to when civil rights laws were enacted, a lot of the kind of unequal treatment that we see in health care today does not seem to be explicit,” Clark said. “It does not seem to be conscious.”
Cedars-Sinai released a statement vehemently denying racist practices.
“Cedars-Sinai was founded on the principals of diversity, inclusion, and quality healthcare 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 healthcare and advance equity in healthcare more broadly. We commend Mr. Johnson for the attention he has brought to the important issue of racial disparities in maternal outcomes.”
The wrongful death case against Cedars-Sinai is set to go to trial on May 11 in Los Angeles Superior Court.