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KXAN Investigation "Preventing Disaster" Highlights Need for Traffic Security Barriers at Hospitals

Howry, Breen & Herman, LLP

On February 13, 2024, a driver crashed through the emergency room doors of St. David’s North Austin Medical Center, resulting in his death and the serious injuries of five others. The catastrophic accident prompted the investigative journalists of KXAN, an NBC News affiliate, to start a deep dive into how the accident happened, how many others like it occur around Texas each year, and what could be done to prevent them. The investigative team’s work was supported in part by the attorneys of Howry Breen & Herman, LLP, who provided photographs related to the accident and legal knowledge. Attorney Sean Breen is representing an entire family that was injured in the crash, so he was happy to provide his firsthand insight into the case.

Entire Family is Seriously Injured in the Crash

The Bernard family – father Levi, mother Nadia, 3-year-old Rio, and 1-year-old Sunny – were at the St. David’s North Austin Medical Center emergency room and enjoying the decorative aquarium by the front window when, without warning, an Acura slammed through the front doors. The vehicle and the debris thrown by it crashed into five people, including the entire Bernard family. Even though they were already in an ER, it was not equipped to provide immediate aid to the injured, so Nadia was taken to St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center in an ambulance and left wondering if her husband and children would be okay.

The injuries and complications suffered by the Bernard family include:

  • Baby Sunny suffered multiple head injuries and lacerations across his body.
  • Little Rio needed nine stitches in his hand and surgery to remove embedded glass.
  • Levi suffered long-lasting soft tissue injuries, including a badly swollen elbow that is still irritated to this day, and lost his sense of taste and smell for several weeks.
  • Nadia was hospitalized for a month and still needs a wheelchair due to a severely broken shin, ribs, and shoulder, all of which have prevented her from returning to work ever since the crash.

Why Did the Car Crash Through the ER Doors?

Police investigators have said that there is no reason to think that the driver intentionally crashed through the front doors of the St. David’s North Austin Medical Center emergency department. Upon reviewing the heavily redacted accident report, it can be surmised that the driver may have accidentally hit the accelerator when trying to brake, causing his vehicle to surge uncontrollably. He passed away from his injuries, though, so it is impossible to know for certain what happened in his vehicle.

Yet one important question must still be asked: “Why was the car able to crash through the ER doors in the first place?” St. David’s North Austin Medical Center has no traffic security barriers or bollards, which are metal or concrete poles installed into the ground for the purpose of stopping vehicles in their tracks upon impact. Could the simple installation of these commonplace traffic safety systems have prevented the worst consequences of the crash?

(For a full summary of the accident, the aftermath, and the questions surrounding it, you can click here to read part 1 of KXAN’s investigative series, “Preventing Disaster”.)

Bollards Could Have Prevented the ER Crash

In the second part of KXAN’s “Preventing Disaster” series, the investigators shared how safety experts who have assessed the crash and its aftermath have largely agreed that bollards would have protected the Bernard family and possibly could have saved the driver’s life, too. The investigators didn’t want to rely purely on educated guesses, though, no matter how reliable their sources. To be thorough, the team went to Texas A&M Transportation Institute, where traffic safety barriers and other vehicle safety measures are put to the test by engineers and other experts.

McCue Corporation designs and sells bollards that are meant to stop crashes just like the one at St. David’s North Austin. The investigators were invited to the Institute by McCue on a day it was testing two of its bollards. The vertical steel posts used for most of McCue’s bollard systems are designed to be simple to install, so construction crews at any jobsite can efficiently place bollards where they are needed.

KXAN investigators were amazed at how effectively a properly designed and installed bollard could stop a heavy vehicle traveling at fairly high speeds. The onsite demonstration of bollard safety only furthered the question: “Why hadn’t St. David’s North Austin Medical Center installed bollards in front of the ER entrance if the installation was apparently so simple?”

(You can read the full second part of the “Preventing Disaster” series by clicking here.)

How Many Texas ERs Have Traffic Security Measures?

When asked why the ER wasn’t protected by bollards, St. David’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Peter DeYoung stated that the barriers were not in place so patients could use wheelchairs upon entering. However, bollards can be spaced far enough apart to let wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices through but not vehicles. Furthermore, other St. David’s medical clinics in Texas have bollards outside emergency rooms, so it is clear that the medical group knows about this type of safety feature and how to install them to not impede people who need wheelchairs.

Overall, the KXAN investigative journalists found that 18 hospitals in the Austin area had properly installed bollards, 9 had partial bollard coverage, and 7 had none at all. The investigators had to put in footwork to check for bollards because most of the hospitals did not want to even answer the question about whether or not they had bollards in place to stop vehicle accidents like the one that had hurt an entire family at St. David’s North Austin. When pressing the issue, most of the responses from various healthcare institutions were clearly pre-manufactured, corporate responses along the lines of, “The health and safety of our patients, visitors, and staff are our top priorities.”

Upon asking the Storefront Safety Council about the need for bollards, Rob Reiter, a co-founder of the group, gave the investigators a blunt answer: “If you have an unprotected entrance, it is a matter of when not if.” For more than 20 years, the safety group has tracked similar vehicle-storefront accidents across the country. The data shows that 300 such accidents have happened since 2014, many of which have occurred in Texas.

(You can learn more about which hospitals in Texas badly need to improve their traffic safety systems by reading part 3 of the “Preventing Disasters” KXAN series:

No Laws Mean No Crash Prevention

Lastly, the KXAN investigative journalists wanted to know what Texas law had to say about mandatory traffic safety barrier installation at hospitals, storefronts, and other traffic-heavy areas. It turns out the law didn’t have much to say at all. Investigators found that more than 101,000 bills have been filed by congress members in Texas across the last 30 years, but zero of those bills proposed rules for bollard placement and installation.

To make sure they weren’t missing anything important, the investigators reached out to the Legislative Reference Library (LRL). The LRL’s data query system reported no bollard-related laws were proposed in the last 30 years, but that might have been an error with how they were using the search system. An LRL representative confirmed it was not. Currently, no Texas-level or federal-level law requires medical clinics and similar structures to have bollards installed to prevent storefront vehicle accidents like what happened at St. David’s North Austin.

The Bernard family is pursuing legal action with the help of Howry Breen & Herman, LLP. While their lawsuit against St. David’s North Austin Medical Center has the primary goal of helping them financially recover from the life-changing accident, it has an important secondary goal: kickstart conversations about legislation that would require bollards to be installed in front of certain structures, including emergency rooms. “One of the main reasons we’re talking to you now and having this conversation is because we’re hoping it will have an impact and prevent this from happening to other people. I’m hoping that this story will lead to some influence on lawmakers,” Levi Bernard told KXAN in an interview.

(Click here to read the conclusion to KXAN Investigate’s “Preventing Disaster” series and learn more about how legal changes will be needed to create bollard requirements in Texas and nationwide.)

What Happens Now? Civil Lawsuits

While Texas legislators start thinking about how to regulate bollard use and design, the Bernard family continues to try to heal from their severe injuries caused by the terrible storefront crash at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center—and Howry Breen & Herman, LLP prepares to fight for their rights, including in a courtroom trial if necessary.

Attorney Sean Breen is honored to be the Bernard family’s attorney in a lawsuit against St. David’s for failing to take simple security precautions like using bollards by the front door of the ER. He expects to have the lawsuit finalized and filed soon, so please visit our blog often for important updates. In addition to demanding economic and non-economic damages for the Bernards, the lawsuit will also require St. David’s HealthCare to install bollards at all its hospital entrances across Texas. If the lawsuit is a success and St. David’s is ordered to install bollards, the hope is that other hospitals and healthcare groups will follow suit without needing to be threatened by a lawsuit.

To learn more about this ongoing story and unfolding legal situation, you can visit: (Follow the links after the ‘investigative summary’ to view the other three parts of this investigative piece.) For more information about Howry Breen & Herman, LLP and our legal counsel that is available to the wrongfully injured in Austin and across Texas, you can request a freecase evaluation by dialing (512) 430-4844 at any time.

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