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Washington Lawyers' Committee and Sutherland File Suit to Protect Deaf Patients' Rights

January 11, 2005

WASHINGTON (January 11, 2005) – For the first time, deaf patients have taken a hospital to court claiming that its provision of interpreters through inadequate video conferencing technology does not provide them with effective communication in critical medical situations.  The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP today filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of seven deaf individuals who sought treatment at Laurel Regional Hospital in Laurel, Md., and despite their specific and repeated requests were denied in-person qualified sign language interpreter services.  The plaintiffs allege that they were instead provided with inadequate video interpreting, cryptic notes or, most often, no communication at all.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland alleges that the plaintiffs were denied the benefit of effective communication with physicians and health care providers at Laurel Hospital, were unable to provide informed consent to treatment, were denied the opportunity to participate in their treatment, and were denied the full benefit of the health care services provided by Laurel Hospital, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) and other laws. 

The plaintiffs complain that the Hospital relied principally on video remote interpreting (VRI), a means of utilizing a remote interpreter through videoconferencing technology.  However, plaintiffs allege that Hospital staff often refused to set up the VRI equipment, and that they were not adequately trained to set up the equipment correctly or quickly.  Moreover, plaintiffs allege that the equipment used by the Hospital was difficult to view and insufficiently mobile.  Most important, plaintiffs note that the two-dimensional nature of video cannot effectively capture sign language, which is a three-dimensional language. 

Elaine Gardner, Director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee Disability Rights Project, says deaf patients, such as the plaintiffs, should receive the same level of effective communication provided for hearing patients. "The ADA is clear – deaf patients have the right to understand, and be understood by, their medical providers."

One of the seven plaintiffs, Elizabeth Gillespie, went to Laurel Hospital emergency room on November 1, 2003, to receive treatment for severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, among other symptoms.  Ms. Gillespie was required to wait hours, denied numerous requests for an in-person interpreter, and was prepared for medical tests in a manner that was personally humiliating, including having a male attendant snap her bra as a means of communicating with her that it needed to be removed.  As with several of the plaintiffs, the VRI technology, when it was provided to Ms. Gillespie, proved woefully inadequate.  "This was the last straw for me," said Mrs. Gillespie, who said her experience gave her the incentive to contact the Lawyers' Committee and bring this lawsuit.

Under the ADA, discrimination includes the failure to provide auxiliary aids and services.  The term "auxiliary aids and services" under the ADA includes "qualified interpreters" who make "aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments."

"This is not an indictment of video interpreting," says Lewis S. Wiener, a litigation partner with Sutherland, who represents the plaintiffs pro bono.  "Rather, the question is whether, based on the facts,  Laurel Hospital's use of  video remote interpreting and its refusal to provide these individuals with in-person interpreters meets the requirements of the ADA.  In this case it clearly did not.  Laurel Hospital's failure to provide effective communication has directly injured and continues to injure the plaintiffs."

The suit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against Laurel Hospital and an order requiring the hospital to provide deaf individuals with auxiliary aids and services necessary for effective communication, including qualified sign language interpreters, TTY's and close captioned televisions.  The suit also seeks compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys fees and costs.

In addition to Mr. Wiener, Sutherland attorneys David A. Last and Thomas R. Bundy III are involved in the matter.  All are available to comment on the case.  To view a copy of the complaint online, please visit

The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, for over 35 years, has represented both individuals and groups seeking to vindicate their civil rights. It has handled over 5,000 civil rights cases, in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other aspects of urban life. It represents people with claims of discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, disability, age, religion, and sexual orientation.

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan is a national law firm known for solving challenging business problems and resolving unique legal issues for many of the nation's largest companies.  Founded in 1924, the firm has grown to more than 400 lawyers in Atlanta, Austin, Houston, New York, Tallahassee and Washington.  For further information about the firm, please visit,   

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