When a jury awarded Terri Schiavo more than $1 million in a medical malpractice suit against her two physicians in 1992, it did so believing the money would be used to pay for the brain-injured woman’s long-term care and rehabilitation.
But instead of the therapy he promised he’d provide for Terri, her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, 41, who is also her legal guardian, used most of the money to pay attorneys to arrange his wife’s death; ?and he did this with full court approval.
The money awarded Terri was placed in a trust fund, and a judge approved all expenditures ?from pedicures to attorney bills. The latter has skyrocketed over the years, as Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, battled their son-in-law in the Florida courts over their daughter’s right to live.
By June 2001, the trust fund money had dwindled to $350,000. Today, just $40,000 to $50,000 remains.
Deborah Bushnell, who has represented Michael Schiavo since 1993 in a series of legal skirmishes with the Schindlers, this month told the Associated Press she has been paid $80,309 since becoming involved in the case. “Right to die” advocate and attorney George Felos, who was hired surreptitiously by Schiavo in 1997 to win court approval for Terri’s death by removing her feeding tube, has been paid $348,434, according to Bushnell. Informed sources say an additional $50,000 should be added to that figure.
Four years ago, the St. Petersburg Times reported records showed Felos was paid more than $200,000 between 1997 and June 2001, while Bushnell garnered $27,000 between 1993 and June 2001 – which means she has been paid more than $50,000 in just four years. Schiavo, too, was reimbursed $6,000 for legal costs.
The fees include not only standard attorney services, such as preparing briefs and taking depositions, but thousands of dollars for “dealing with the media,” records show. The payoff has been the continuous slanting of news stories in newspapers and on television of the battle over Terri’s life, beginning after the trial in 2000.
Both attorneys claim they have not been paid since 2002, but Felos recently admitted to the St. Petersburg Times that the American Civil Liberties Union is helping underwrite Schiavo’s litigation.
Spending Terri’s money in litigation is highly unusual, according to Pat Anderson, who represented the Schindlers in their fight with Michael Schiavo from 2001 through most of 2004.
Most guardianships don’t prosecute or defend legal actions, Anderson told WorldNetDaily.
“They just go along, uneventfully, and the guardian reports to the court once a year,” she said. “The guardian pays doctor bills, arranges for medical care, buys baseball game tickets, pays for haircuts and toenail clippings, nothing controversial.”
Anderson said court approval is required to pay attorney fees out of a guardianship estate, but because generally the fees are modest, a guardianship attorney, such as Bushnell, only applies once a year.
“Obviously, in order to have a successful guardianship practice, an attorney must have a lot of guardianships ? or a major lawsuit,” she noted.
Terri’s account balance had dropped to about $100,000 by 2002, at which time a strategy was devised to qualify her for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the indigent and disabled.
In situations like this, after assets are sold the remaining money goes into trust and can only be used for certain specified purposes, Anderson said. Upon the patient’s death any remaining money goes to the government. In exchange, the government extends Medicaid benefits.
Terri Schiavo suffered major trauma in February 1990 when she collapsed at age 26 under disputed circumstances in the St. Petersburg, Fla., apartment she shared with her husband. Oxygen to her brain was cut off for about eight minutes, leaving her unable to talk and dependent on a tube through her abdomen for food and hydration.
Medical reports that surfaced in 2002 strongly indicate Terri was a victim of beating and strangulation, but at the time of her collapse, her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, never considered such a possibility and agreed to Michael being named as guardian. They did not realize this would give him total control over all aspects of her life ?– where she lived, what medical treatment she received and who could visit her.
Two years after their daughter’s collapse, in the hope of getting funding for her long-term care, the Schindlers endorsed Schiavo bringing a medical malpractice suit against Terri’s two gynecologists for negligence.
At the trial in November 1992, Schiavo’s lawyers argued that Terri’s collapse was caused by a potassium imbalance, brought on through an “eating disorder,” specifically, bulimia. Though there was never any evidence she was bulimic, the jury held the doctors responsible for not diagnosing that condition and awarded $1.4 million to Terri for her care and rehabilitation and $630,000 to her husband for “loss of spouse.”
After the attorneys had taken their cut of nearly 50 percent, Terri was left with more than $750,000, and Schiavo had $300,000 to spend as he wished. He used his award money to pay for training to be a nurse, something he had promised the jury he’d do so he could take care of Terri personally. He also bought a gold Honda Acura.
A trust fund for the disabled woman was established at a local bank, with the money invested in blue chip stocks such as Coca-Cola, Walt Disney and Procter & Gamble Co.; corporate and U.S. Treasury bonds; and a money market account.
In April 1993, Terri’s money was valued at $776,254. According to a financial planner, it’s been estimated that if the principle had not been touched, the fund during the mid- to late 1990s would have grown and at the same time generated an annual income of at least $70,000. This easily would have paid for her care in the finest nursing home in Florida, including rehabilitation.
However, under Florida law, if Terri should die, Schiavo as spouse and guardian stood to inherit her entire trust fund.
No sooner was Terri’s money in the bank than Michael Schiavo refused to begin the long-awaited rehabilitation program. He directed the nursing home where she lived not to give her antibiotics for various infections and had a “do not resuscitate” order attached to her chart. He later testified doctors had advised him that her condition was hopeless and if she became ill he should “let her die.”
As his wife’s legal guardian, Schiavo is permitted to use her money, but only if what he spends it on is in her “best interests.” He has said he is trying to do that by following her wishes not to be kept alive “artificially” and denies his decision to remove her feeding tube has anything to do with the fact he is the beneficiary of her estate.
“This suit was brought on her behalf to implement her wishes,” said attorney Felos.
The Schindlers tried to wrest the guardianship from their son-in-law but were unsuccessful, and the two sides began their battle in the Florida courts, which in time escalated into what some observers consider the most important euthanasia litigation in history. It was the first case in which family members fought each other over whether a patient in a so-called “persistent vegetative state,” but otherwise in good health, should have a feeding tube removed so he or she would starve to death.
Follow the money
In any litigation, a paper trail is created as the parties file documents and judges issue orders. A second trail – a money trail – is created by attorneys when they file itemized fee petitions to the court to recoup their costs. Fee petitions may include details about phone calls – when they were made, to whom, what was talked about and how long each call lasted. They show how much was paid to expert witnesses, how much time was spent on research, preparing testimony and affidavits, taking depositions and appearing in court.
The fee petitions also give information about the various schemes and strategies being devised. Reading a fee petition is like following the marks an explorer cuts on trees to show the way through a forest.
But after the trial in 2000, Bushnell and Michael Schiavo had the petitions sealed from the public.
Bushnell charged $165 an hour for the first few years but later raised that to $185 an hour.
For the first year of guardianship litigation ?from Sept. 21, 1993, to Sept. 16, 1994, Bushnell billed $5,622 for 35 hours, plus $1.75 for two faxes – one from attorney Steve Nilson, of an amended deposition; one from Gyneth Stanley, attorney for the bank which acted as “guardian of the property of Theresa Marie Schiavo.”
The high figure was due to the courtroom battle between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers, who were desperately attempting to oust their son-in-law from his entrenched position as “guardian of the person of Theresa Marie Schiavo.”
Costs included a “telephone conference with Steve Nilson regarding issues of do not resuscitate and no treatment and timing to raise issues” ($82.50); “Telephone Conference with Mike Schiavo re: do not treat decision” ($49.50); and “Telephone Conference with Michael Schiavo regarding problem with nursing home complaining” ($49.50).
While Schiavo could pay Bushnell with money from his wife’s trust fund, the Schindlers had few funds at their disposal, and their attorneys over the years have worked for low fees or on a pro bono ?basis, providing services for free.
Another cost borne by Terri’s estate ? unrelated to the guardianship litigation ? came in late 1994 when Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Pinick allowed Schiavo to take nearly $10,000 from the fund to pay her “share” of a bank loan they had co-signed the summer before her collapse.
According to records obtained by WND, the couple borrowed $11,500, in June 1989, to pay some “marital debts.” But with Terri incapacitated and not working, Schiavo fell behind on the payments and the debt mushroomed. A payment plan was negotiated, with a total owed of more than $18,000.
Rather than use his own resources and award money, Schiavo persuaded the court to reimburse him $3,525 from her trust fund for one-half the monthly payments healready had made on his wife’s share of the note and to pay the bank $5,772.17 for her half of the final payment due.
Pinick signed the order authorizing payment on Dec. 8, 1994, in time for Christmas.
A deadly agenda
At first, Schiavo clearly was hoping his wife would become ill and he could “let her die” as several doctors had advised him. The more deadly scheme to euthanize her by starvation was in the talking stages by late 1995, ? three years before it was formalized in the courts in 1998, according to the fee petitions.
Bushnell contacted Felos by phone Dec. 13, 1995, asking for “assistance with analysis of life-prolonging procedures statute … .” They talked for half an hour, at a cost to Terri’s trust fund of $82.50.
In 1996, Bushnell obtained permission from Judge Pinick to seal the annual financial reports from Terri’s parents. She also asked him to deny the Schindlers copies of the annual reports on Terri’s care and information about her medical condition, but Pinick didn’t go that far. He ruled that the parents were to be notified of any change in Terri’s condition and that treatment would have to be given for any illness for at least five days.
In February 1997, Bushnell phoned Schiavo “re: associating George Felos to handle removal of life support issue” at a cost to Terri of $54.
On March 5, 1997, Schiavo signed a contract with Felos “to represent him in connection with the withdrawal and/or refusal of medical treatment …” at the rate of $195 an hour, with costs to be “borne by the client.” There was no mention of starving Terri to death by removing her feeding tube. The agreement was contingent on approval of the Pinellas County Probate Court.
In fact, the client paid nothing. As usual, all costs would be repaid out of Terri’s trust fund.
In mid-April, Bushnell petitioned the court in Michael Schiavo’s name for permission to employ and pay George Felos “for representation in connection with the issue of withdrawal and/or refusal of medical treatment,” at the rate of $195 an hour. Evidently everyone associated with the case except the Schindlers understood that “medical treatment” included providing food and water through a feeding tube.
With the petition, Bushnell submitted a formal order she had prepared for Judge Mark Shames to sign, authorizing the hiring of Felos. At this point, she hit a temporary roadblock: the order signed by Judge Thomas Pinick a year earlier that Terri’s parents were to be notified in case there was a change in her medical condition. Shames returned Bushnell’s prepared order stamped “NOT SIGNED,” with a note handwritten on it that Terri’s parents needed to be told about this.
‘Gently and informally’
Bushnell shot back a response, assuring Shames that Schiavo was “aware” of the “difficult issues” in the case and urging he sign the order even though the Schindlers hadn’t been notified and wouldn’t be for a while.
“It is anticipated that the parents will initially be approached gently and informally by Attorney Felos regarding this issue, that Hospice will be involved, and that counseling will be provided to the guardian and the parents to assist with the decision-making process,” Bushnell explained.
“… Attorney Felos, the guardian, and I feel that the receipt of a petition for payment of attorney fees regarding this issue would not be the best and kindest way for the ward’s parents to learn that this issue is being considered.”
No reason was given as to why the local hospice was to be brought into the picture, but that became obvious in April 2000 when Michael Schiavo and Felos had Terri removed surreptitiously and without prior court approval from the nursing home where she’d lived since 1994 and relocated at the Woodside Hospice, a facility of the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, of which Felos had been a board member since 1996, a fact he did not disclose.
After receiving assurances that the Schindlers would be notified eventually, Shames signed the order May 14, 1994. Felos waited more than three months to inform the Schindlers – “kindly and informally” – of Schiavo’s plans.
Word came in a casual letter sent by regular post, and at first Robert Schindler couldn’t believe what he was reading.
Dated Aug. 20, 1997, the letter was from an attorney he had never heard of, telling them in an offhand way that he had been hired by their son-in-law to arrange Terri’s death. Worse,? it appeared a court had approved the idea without so much as a hearing.
“I felt sick at my stomach,” Schindler told WND. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like being sucker punched right in the gut. I never, ever thought Michael would go that far.”
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Schindler,” the letter began.
“The court in your daughter’s guardianship, … has authorized the guardian to employ me in connection with the withdrawal and/or refusal of medical treatment for your daughter Theresa. I have handled many cases exploring the appropriateness of terminating life-sustaining medical treatment and have also worked in the past as a Hospice patient volunteer. I know first hand how difficult it is making such determinations. …”
Nothing definite was decided the Schindlers were told; the writer was simply “obtaining information” about Terri’s treatment and prognosis for recovery and what her wishes might be if she could “express herself.” They were advised to contact the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, a network of hospice facilities based in Largo, Fla., for patients terminally ill from a disease and beyond hope of recovery.
“Whatever the end point of this process may be,” the letter continued, “you may find it a great benefit talking or meeting with a Hospice professional. I have been told that Sandy Sunter, with Hospice, is aware of Theresa’s case. I know Sandy to be highly skilled as well as deeply compassionate.”
The letter was signed “George Felos.”
Schindler said he wasn’t taken in for a minute. It was clear a “final determination” had been made, with Terri’s death as the “end point.” When he recovered from the initial shock, he phoned Felos to see if there wasn’t “a bit of wiggle room.” Couldn’t something be worked out that would allow Terri to live? Was Michael Schiavo so determined to see his wife dead that he would consider no alternative? Felos said matters had gone too far and there could be no turning back. That was news to Schindler.
Sandra Sunter, the woman Felos suggested as a contact at the hospice, is a licensed mental health counselor. Schindler figured he didn’t need a counselor, ?he needed an attorney.
No deep pocket
Unlike Schiavo, Terri’s dad didn’t have a deep pocket to dip into for legal fees, but an attorney he knew put him in touch with Pamela Campbell, a guardianship attorney, who agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis.
Felos didn’t bill for services until after the trial that was held in January 2000; then he presented a bill for nearly $75,000.
Although Bushnell billed for the initial phone call in 1995, Felos himself did not charge for advice he might have provided prior to March 5, 1997, when Schiavo actually met with him and they signed a contract. To cover a few pre-trial costs, Bushnell obtained court approval for an advance to Felos of $7,500. By the time the trial was completed the sum total of fees and costs was $81,760.17 for the period from March 5, 1997, to Jan. 28, 2000.
This included payments to paralegals, researchers and expert witnesses. Dr. Victor Gambone — Terri’s physician, who certified her as being PVS, a condition from which he said she could never recover — received $1,250 as an expert witness while Dr. James Barnhill, a Florida neurologist, received $4,200 for testifying her brain was gone and had been replaced with spinal fluid.
Despite later testimony and statements from dozens of other doctors, including neurologists, the label PVS has stuck, as has the depiction of Terri not having a brain.
When the $7,500 advance was deducted, the firm of Felos and Felos received $74,230. Some of the work done by the firm was done by Felos’ wife and law partner, Constance Felos. The couple has since divorced.
And what did Felos do to earn that money?
The initial conference with Schiavo lasted 80 minutes ($260); on Aug. 18, 1997, he reviewed the file and drafted letters to doctors and the “sucker-punch” letter to the Schindlers ($292.50); talked to Bob Schindler Aug. 26, after he received the letter ($113.75).
Every minute, every hour the clock was ticking on Terri and the tab was growing exponentially. The principle of her estate was being depleted quicker than it could generate revenue. But with the financial report closed to the parents, the Schindlers had no idea how much was being spent.
After the trial, Felos billed on a more regular basis every few months, with a particularly large invoice for the two months following the trial, much of it for “dealing with the media.”
During the trial, the Schindlers began to realize this was not going to be a slam dunk. They had assumed no judge would allow Terri’s feeding tube to be removed.
“The whole thing was ludicrous,” said Schindler, recalling his feelings before the trial. “I actually believed it would be thrown out of court. Even when the trial started, I thought Greer would just throw it out. Everything seemed like a grade B or grade C movie, ? =everything seemed so weak that they were presenting to the court. I just didn’t see how that could ever happen.”
But it did, and on Feb. 11, 2000, Greer signed an eight-page order directing the removal of Terri’s feeding tube.
The Schindlers, stunned, wondered how they could continue the fight lacking the necessary financial resources. Then, in a sudden groundswell of support, a small group of dedicated pro-life activists cobbled together a grass-roots campaign. Doctors, too, came forward to testify that Terri was not PVS, but they spoke too late. The order had been signed. Lawyers appeared, who agreed to carry the case to the appeals court.
A computer guru volunteered his services, and at his own expense developed a website, serving as webmaster until mid-2003, at no cost to the Schindlers.
Public opinion ran high in favor of the parents and against a husband who wanted her out of the way. Schiavo may have won in the trial court, but he was losing in the court of public opinion. Felos began a counter-campaign of his own, but not for free.
Massaging the media
In June 2000, Felos billed $11,700 for attorney time for the two-month period from Jan. 28 to March 28, with many of the items essentially damage-control measures. These include hours spent with Schiavo doing media interviews, “calls to and from client regarding how to obtain balanced media coverage, media interviews,” “numerous calls to and from media representatives and interviews,” a call from Schiavo regarding radio talk show and libel issues.”
One of the overseers in the county clerk’s office, Ms. Story, balked at approving the invoice because of its many media-related items. Story said the court wanted to know why the expenditure of attorney time dealing with the media was of any benefit to Terri.
Felos explained in a letter to Judge Greer that the Schindlers had initiated a “broad-based media campaign,” and it was necessary to “correct inaccuracies and falsehoods in respondents’ media portrayal of the case.” Attacks against Schiavo were “strident,” and “he has directly been called a ‘murderer’ on television and radio.”
Felos said Michael Schiavo did not feel qualified to answer the charges, and counted on him to present his cause to the media: “A client may be concerned about misspeaking in front of the media or even, through a misstatement, making statements which could be construed as an admission against interest in the case, thus damaging the cause of action of the Ward.”
Felos was particularly chagrined at a letter of Schindler’s, posted on the website, that included some “extremely inflammatory language, such as ‘Terri has been sentenced to death. We do not understand how in a civilized society, Terri’s life was even put on trial.’”
Michael Schiavo, according to Felos, was being “unfairly maligned and held up to public ridicule,” and as guardian should have “the reasonable right, through counsel, to counter such an attack. Otherwise, persons may be reluctant to act as guardians, and may be very reluctant to undertake legal action to enforce the Ward’s rights if the guardian concludes that his or her reputation or livelihood cannot be defended in the proceeding.”
As with every request Felos made during the six years he presided over the case, Greer agreed and approved the billing, including the charges for “dealing with the media.”
For Schiavo and Felos, it was money well spent. From that time onward, the mainstream media, ?local and national, ? have framed the story their way, particularly the Associated Press, the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Times.
Terri Schiavo continues to be described as being in a persistent vegetative state, while dozens of doctors and therapists say otherwise. The case is characterized as a “right to die” case, while many believe it’s more accurately a “right to live.” The reason given for removal of her feeding tube is “so she can die.”
In addition, Michael Schiavo’s long-term adulterous relationship with another woman, with whom he has had two children, is downplayed or ignored. Also ignored is the once-sizable inheritance he stood to gain from his legal wife’s death. Instead, he is portrayed as a loving husband desperately trying to carry out Terri’s wishes despite her parents, who stubbornly refuse to “let her go.”
Bobby Schindler, one of Terri’s two siblings, told WND he is amazed at the strength and determination of the opposition against his parents and Terri by the courts, media and government.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “An awful lot of people want my sister dead, and they’ve spent a lot of money killing her. What I can’t figure out is why.”
For background on the 15-year saga, read “The whole Terri Schiavo story.”
Editor’s note: WorldNetDaily has been reporting on the Terri Schiavo story since 2002 – far longer than most other national news organization – and exposing the many troubling, scandalous, and possibly criminal, aspects of the case that to this day rarely surface in news reports. Read WorldNetDaily’s unparalleled, in-depth coverage of the life-and-death fight over Terri Schiavo, including over 150 original stories and columns.
Court documents and other information are posted on the Schindler family website.
Links to all “Terri briefs” regarding the governor’s defense of Terri’s Law are on the Florida Supreme Court website, public information.