ST. LOUIS — Mark Lindquist, whose against-the-odds story of survival and heroism in the Joplin tornado touched people around the world, got some good news Monday: The insurance company that initially denied his medical claim agreed to pay.
Lindquist, 51, was hurt while trying to protect group home residents during the May 22 twister. Lindquist and a co-worker placed mattresses on top of three middle-aged men with Down syndrome in an effort to protect them from the tornado and even climbed atop the mattresses for added weight.
The group home residents died, and Lindquist was in a coma for nearly two months, broke every rib, lost most of his teeth and suffered other serious injuries.
Lindquist's job paid barely above minimum wage, and he couldn't afford medical insurance.
He sought workers' compensation, claiming he was injured on the job. His company's workers' compensation provider, Accident Fund Insurance Company of America, denied the claim in June "based on the fact that there was no greater risk than the general public at the time you were involved in the Joplin tornado," according to a letter from a claims adjuster.
The decision was devastating for Lindquist because his medical bills already are more than $2.5 million and rising, his sister Linda Lindquist Baldwin said last week.
But on Monday, a day after an Associated Press story was released, Accident Fund Insurance Company of America announced it was changing course.
"Upon further review of the case, and receiving additional information on the facts involved in this situation, Accident Fund believes the appropriate decision is to honor Mr. Mark Lindquist's claim for workers' compensation benefits," said Mike Britt, president of the Lansing, Mich.-based insurance company. "We are committed to working with Mr. Lindquist to ensure he receives all the benefits to which he is entitled and helping him to recover from his injuries."
Lindquist said he was thrilled with the news — not just for himself but for the doctors who saved him. He had planned to sell his house to try to pay off some of his bills. Now, he said, he might not have to.
"I'm happy — it's a big worry off my mind," Lindquist said. "I'm glad the doctors are going to get paid because they did such an awesome job with me."
Baldwin said the family, which had planned to meet with an attorney when the claim was denied, still plans to weigh legal options before accepting the payment. But she said the family was overwhelmed by the turnaround.
"What it's going to mean for Mark is long-term help and medical care for him," Baldwin said, adding that Accident Fund has agreed to pay all past and future medical bills related to his injuries. "My only concern is that Mark's cared for. He's younger than I am and will probably outlive me, and I want to make sure he is cared for his entire life."
Britt cited Missouri law in the initial decision to deny Lindquist's claim. He said state laws "limit recovery for injuries received during a tornado to situations where the employee was not subjected to a greater harm than that of the general public."
But Britt said additional review indicated that paying the claim was appropriate.
The Joplin Globe first reported Lindquist's story earlier this month. The AP story published Sunday prompted interest from people, organizations and media nationwide, Baldwin said. Several well-wishers offered donations. An organization for trial attorneys offered up lawyers to work on Lindquist's behalf at no charge.
In an earlier interview with AP, Lindquist and Baldwin said the insurance company's decision to deny the claim never made sense. The EF5 twisterdestroyed more than 7,000 homes and killed 162 people, making it among the most deadly single tornadoes in U.S. history.
But Lindquist's own home was not in the path of the tornado and was undamaged. Lindquist said he never even considered trying to get away from the tornado and leaving behind the three men under his care.
"I loved them almost as much as I love my own kid," said Lindquist, the father of a 12-year-old boy, Creed.
Lindquist's employer, Community Support Services, also had asked the insurance firm to reconsider. Both houses of the Missouri legislature passed resolutions honoring Lindquist for his efforts to save the group home residents, the Senate resolution calling him "a true hero and inspiration to others."
The storm tossed Lindquist more than half a block. Two men out searching for survivors found him buried in rubble, impaled by a piece of metal. Large chunks of flesh were torn off, and pieces of his shoulder crumbled to the ground as the rescuers lifted him to safety.
Things got even worse when Lindquist developed a fungal infection from debris that got into open sores, an infection that killed five other Joplin tornado victims.
Lindquist wasn't expected to survive and was in a coma for nearly two months, first at Freeman Hospital in Joplin, then at a hospital in Columbia and finally at a rehabilitation center in Mount Vernon. It was there that he awoke.
"I'm a walking miracle," he said.
Doctors were stunned by his recovery. He moves slowly but walks. He is regaining use of his right arm and of an eye that was badly damaged. He suffers short-term memory loss but speaks clearly. And he is engaged to a woman he first met three decades ago in Montana — they rekindled the romance on Facebook, and she came to be with him after the tornado.
Amy Susan, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Division of Workers' Compensation, said 132 workers' compensation claims were filed after the Joplin tornado. Only eight were denied by insurance companies.