Jeff Jardine

Oakdale man still in limbo more than three years after Utah crash

Eric Peterson, 26, remains in a Utah rehabilitation hospital 3 1/2 years after a drunken driver stole a police car, leading to a chase, and rammed the car Peterson was driving in Salt Lake City in October 2012. His father wants to bring him back to California. Utah said it can’t find a hospital that will take him. Until further notice, he’ll remain a ward of the court.
Eric Peterson, 26, remains in a Utah rehabilitation hospital 3 1/2 years after a drunken driver stole a police car, leading to a chase, and rammed the car Peterson was driving in Salt Lake City in October 2012. His father wants to bring him back to California. Utah said it can’t find a hospital that will take him. Until further notice, he’ll remain a ward of the court. Michael Peterson

Eric Peterson’s family and friends claim he is a prisoner. They say exactly that on the Facebook page titled “One Man’s Wish,” which is dedicated to springing him from the state of Utah.

He is the prisoner of a hospital bed in a rehab facility in Salt Lake City, some 725 miles away from Oakdale, where he grew up. He is a prisoner of his body, which no longer works like it used to and no longer allows him to speak as he once did. And he is a prisoner of the state of Utah, where a court assigned a guardianship to control every aspect of his life.

He became imprisoned by circumstances over which he had no control, his life-changing misfortune the result of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

You might remember Eric’s story, which I first wrote about nearly two years ago. The strapping young man, now 26 years old, left the Valley to work in the lab of a mining operation in Elko, Nev. In October 2012, he traveled to Salt Lake City to visit his girlfriend. Driving her car, he pulled up to an intersection totally unaware that, just moments before, a drunken 20-year-old had stolen a police car and led officers on a high-speed chase. The AWOL cruiser slammed into Peterson’s vehicle, knocking it into a tree. The criminal is behind bars, likely to walk out a free man roughly 11 years from now.

Peterson, though, suffered critical injuries requiring multiple surgeries. He has been in acute care or rehab hospitals ever since – “ever since” stretching well into its fourth year with no resolution forthcoming. He cannot walk. He talks as if he’s trying to escape from his body and his surroundings, and in a sense he is.

“I want to go home!” he said to me via a video chat earlier in the week.

His father, Michael Peterson, went to Utah immediately after the crash hoping to bring his son home to recover. Instead, they’ve both become reluctant residents of the Beehive State.

“I didn’t expect to be up here going on four years,” he said. He goes every day to the rehab hospital to help Eric with his physical therapy. They play video games to challenge Eric’s mind and reflexes.

Michael Peterson steadfastly believes the state is keeping his son in Utah to control its financial liability in the case.

“It’s all a cover-up,” he said. “It’s all about trying to shove it under the rug. He tells me, ‘I’m miserable here. I want to go home.’ 

He wants Eric back here in the Valley, where friends and family members can be a part of Eric’s life again and enhance the extent to which he recovers. But Michael has no legal standing in his son’s life or business. Eric is an adult rendered incapable of making his own decisions. A Utah court made Eric a ward of the state in part because Michael Peterson has no income or savings. A friend in Utah let him stay at her place. He spends his days with Eric at the facility.

“He’s been a wonderful father, standing by his son,” said Kent Alderman, an attorney representing the guardianship. “But he doesn’t have any resources.”

Alderman said the agency would like nothing more than to move Eric back home and end the burden on that state’s taxpayers.

“Utah would love to pass him off to California,” Alderman said.

For that to happen, a hospital or rehab facility here would need to accept Eric as a patient. Alderman also said transporting him by air would be expensive. Michael Peterson countered that he’s already checked on that.

“Medicaid will pay one way,” he said.

Alderman said the guardian agency has contacted facilities in California, unable to find a taker.

“Nobody is interested in taking him due to the severity of (Eric’s) injuries,” Alderman said. “He’s made progress that’s impressed his medical caregivers, but he’s profoundly disabled.”

Many rehabilitation facilities cater more toward elderly patients, not younger ones such as Eric Peterson, who will require care for the rest of his life. The guardian agency declined my request to provide a list of hospitals it has contacted here.

So I called around to a few Valley facilities. Modesto’s English Oaks has not been contacted by any Utah state-affiliated agencies, Administrator Deanna Hill said.

A staffer at the Modesto Post Acute Center (formerly Country Villa) recalls no such inquiry. The facility accepts younger, long-term patients.

Likewise, said Administrator Daniel Cipponeri of Windsor (former Evergreen).

“We haven’t talked to anyone from Utah,” he said. He’d certainly entertain such a call. “We take younger people.”

A Modesto-area care service company that has been in contact with Utah could not comment because there is a gag order on the case from Utah.

Acceptance is based on consent by the responsible party, meaning family or guardian; a needs assessment to determine the patient’s abilities and the facility’s ability to meet them; bed availability; and the source of payment.

Medicare is the likely payer in Eric Peterson’s case, should he come home to California. Windsor is Medicare certified. Because a stolen police car was involved in the crash, he received a settlement of “near” the maximum of $680,000 for which the government can be sued in Utah, Alderman said. Much of that has already gone to pay for Peterson’s surgeries and care. Medicare has a lien on the remaining amount, which the guardianship would not disclose.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: A young man gets plowed into by a drunken punk in a stolen police car, is maimed for life and becomes property of the state of Utah until it decides to let him go home. Did I get that right?

“That’s pretty much it,” Alderman said. “It’s a really crappy situation. A really sad case.”

Somebody up there needs to call somebody down here and get Eric Peterson back home.

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