When Ronald Cardwell died in the emergency room at Carroll County General Hospital in 1990, doctors and the state medical examiner blamed it on brain injuries he received in a heated argument outside a Reisterstown bar.
But a medical malpractice and wrongful death suit filed by Cardwell's sisters and nephews Monday in Carroll Circuit Court says the 42-year-old construction contractor died from inadequate care by the hospital and its doctors.
"The untimely death of Mr. Cardwell was completely avoidable and was due solely to the negligence of" the hospital, emergency room physician Uwe Goehlert, and his practice, Professional Emergency Physicians, the suit says.
"The hospital just let this man die," said Kenneth C. Vogelstein, the Baltimore attorney representing the plaintiffs. "This will be a tough case for us to lose."
Robert Morgan, the hospital's attorney, could not be reached for comment, and Charles Martinez, attorney for Professional Emergency Physicians, declined to comment.
Malpractice claims first surfaced during the second-degree murder and battery trial of the man who fought with Cardwell outside the 15 Mile House Bar on the night of Sept. 20, 1990.
James Kevin Malone, a former boxer in the Marines, was charged with slamming Cardwell's head into the ground during the 10:45 p.m. argument. While prosecutors claimed Cardwell died from Malone's blows, Malone blamed the death on the hospital emergency room staff.
A Baltimore County jury acquitted Malone last July after deliberating a little over an hour.
Cardwell was taken by ambulance to Carroll County General after the fight because the closer Baltimore County General Hospital was too busy, court records show.
Semi-conscious when he reached the hospital, Cardwell was found dead by an emergency room nurse at 5:20 a.m. Sept. 21.
During Malone's trial, a New York University Hospital neuropathologist testified that Carroll County General failed to properly care for Cardwell.
"The failure of the personnel at Carroll County General Hospital to properly evaluate this man is then, in my opinion, the true cause of death," wrote Dr. Douglas Miller. "It represents one of the most blatant examples of substandard medical practice I have yet seen."
Miller said the emergency room staff erred when they sedated Cardwell with Haldol, a powerful medicine whose effects mimic symptoms of diseases of the nervous system.
The doctor criticized the hospital for giving Cardwell -- whose blood alcohol level was 0.19 percent -- the Haldol, and he also said they should have taken X-rays and should not have left him unattended for several hours.
Cardwell was tied face down with restraints because he was belligerent to the hospital staff when he was brought in, court records show.
During the trial, the hospital presented evidence that Cardwell died from the blows to his head.
Cardwell's sisters, Mary Jane Leisenring of Owings Mills and Marion Keeney of Baltimore, and his two nephews, Thomas and Ronnie Allen of Baltimore, are seeking unspecified damages in the civil suit.
Cardwell lived with and financially supported Keeney and his nephews, the suit says.
The case is expected to come to trial in four to five months.