The family of a teenager whose death was blamed on the lack of a functioning hospital and lifesaving medical equipment in Vieques, Puerto Rico, is suing the U.S. territory’s government for violation of human and civil rights.
Jaideliz Moreno Ventura, 13, died last year after suffering flulike symptoms while living in Vieques, a smaller island off the coast of Puerto Rico. Vieques has not had a functioning hospital since the facility was destroyed during Hurricane Maria more than three years ago. Emergency funds to rebuild the small island’s only hospital were approved two weeks after Jaideliz’s death, but it still hasn’t been rebuilt.
“The family of Jaidelíz Moreno Ventura has gone to court seeking justice for Jaideliz,” Linda Backiel, the family’s attorney, told NBC News in a statement. “For them, this simply means making sure that no other family has to experience the loss of a child due to failure to provide adequate medical services in Vieques—an island municipality of about 9,000 people.”
Jessica Moraima Ventura Pérez, Jaideliz’s mother, has been demanding accountability for her daughter’s death from government officials, as well as administrators of health services at the local and federal levels, saying that her “daughter will not die in vain.”
“They all owe us an explanation and swift action to make sure more people don’t die due to the lack of basic health services on this island of United States citizens who have waited three years to receive word of what is going to happen to them when lives are at stake,” Ventura Pérez said in a statement when she joined Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., as her guest for last year’s State of the Union address.
Velázquez, who is Puerto Rican, pressed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for months to release aid for Vieques to rebuild its hospital following the devastating September 2017 hurricane.
“The family of Jaideliz Moreno Ventura have been through a tremendous amount of pain and they are right to claim that the medical services available to Jaideliz were terribly inadequate and had they been better, the outcome for their daughter could have been different,” Velázquez told NBC News in a statement.
Then-FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor said last summer that the funding process for the hospital is still underway and they will continue to work with local officials on the project. In the meantime, they will continue to provide funding to keep a $4 million temporary hospital running in Vieques.
Velázquez said she will remain committed to working “at the federal level and maintain communication with the government of Puerto Rico to right this grave inequality and injustice.”
Jaideliz’s family is also suing the medics who treated the teen prior to her death and the administrators of the only medical facility in Vieques for alleged medical malpractice.
When Maria destroyed Vieques’ hospital facilities, residents had to go to makeshift tents set up in the building’s parking lot to receive services. They later moved into Vieques’ only shelter, a facility meant to house people during hurricanes or other natural disasters.
“My daughter fought for her life for over five hours. The least I can do for her is fight for us to have access to a decent health system,” Ventura Pérez previously told NBC News in Spanish.
“Maybe if someone else would have fought for us to have a hospital, my daughter would be here with us today,” she said at the time, adding that her daughter dreamed of growing up to join the Army, like her father, an Iraq War veteran.
The family is also asking the court that the defendants, who include officials from the U.S. territory’s Health and Justice departments, pay no less than $2 million in compensation to make up for funeral and medical expenses, as well as the trauma they suffered by Jaideliz’s death, according to Puerto Rico’s Center For Investigative Journalism, which first reported the lawsuit.
“Their demand for compensation makes the human suffering concrete. The lawsuit is just one way the family is expressing their quest for justice,” said Backiel.
A spokesperson for Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, who took office in January, told NBC News in a statement in Spanish that “he is committed to ensuring that Vieques has an adequate health center with essential services, and that will become a reality.”
“When speaking with the family of the young Jaideliz Moreno Ventura, he told them that such an unfortunate situation should never have happened,” the statement said, adding that Pierluisi is working to address the situation alongside Vieques Mayor José Corcino Acevedo and Puerto Rican Health Secretary Carlos Mellado “so that cases like this are not repeated.”
Backiel said that if Pierluisi “is genuinely committed to respect the human and civil right to health care in Vieques, he needs to explain clearly to the people of Vieques whether they will again have a hospital, or only a ‘Diagnosis and Treatment Center,'” that isn’t equipped with lifesaving care and services, “and whether he agrees with the 30 million dollar reduction in FEMA funds for this purpose.”
Initial estimates suggested that it would take $70 million to rebuild Vieques’ hospital, but Puerto Rican authorities lowered that estimate to $44 million after “conducting a more detailed analysis,” Puerto Rico’s Center For Investigative Journalism reported. But FEMA agreed to only cover $39 million of the costs, while the remaining amount must be covered by the Puerto Rican government, which plans to use CDBG-DR funds assigned to the island by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.