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Deficiencies, Deaths Bring Rash of County Home Suits

Lawsuits Allege Mistreatment, Abuse At Oakville

Jan 7, 2003 |

Everlina Smith, 88, had Alzheimer disease, breast cancer, depression, degenerative joint disease, osteoporosis and urinary tract infections.

Instead of finding ease at Oakville Health Care Center, Smith died an agonizing death marked by dehydration and starvation, numerous bed sores, with maggots feeding upon open flesh wounds, according to a lawsuit recently filed by relatives.

"Everlina Smith was forced to endure grotesquely unsanitary conditions," the com plaint said.

Smith died after 15 months at the county-owned facility at 3391 Old Getwell. Her family seeks $10 million in damages in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the Johnny Cochran law firm.

The lawsuit is among 10 filed in the last two years against the 314-bed nursing home, which for part of the period was under private management. Most complaints allege medical malpractice, wrongful death, neglect, abuse or mistreatment of helpless residents. Most seek millions in damages.

The impact of the lawsuits is not clear. The county in 2001 closed one of its two nursing homes, the Shelby County Health Care Center, and sought to close Oakville last year. When residents and employees lobbied to keep Oakville open, the county anted up $2 million for operations through June 30.

County Commissioner Joyce Avery, chairman of the commission's hospital and health committee, said Oakville has a new administration, and conditions appeared improved on a recent visit. She hopes lawsuits are settled and the facility can remain open because of need.

The nursing home at its last inspection in May received 14 deficiencies, all ranked at a low to moderate level of harm. Most of the deficiencies centered on nursing matters, such as failure to give residents adequate fluids or nutritious foods and taking steps to prevent bedsores and infections. Officials said the deficiencies have since been corrected.

Susan Adler Thorp, a spokesman for county Mayor A C Wharton, said the county's lawyers are reviewing the Smith lawsuit and "until that review is complete, it wouldn't be in the best interest of anyone to comment."

As for whether the county might close the 82-year-old facility, she said Wharton and his staff "are in the process of reviewing all divisions of Shelby County government, and that includes the nursing facility."

Parke S. Morris, one of the attorneys who filed the Smith lawsuit, declined comment beyond the issues outlined in the complaint.

The lawsuit is among dozens filed in recent years against nursing homes in the Mid-South. Several lawyers with Oakville cases declined comment, but Jackson, Tenn., attorney T. Robert Hill, speaking in generalities, said such litigation results from poor nursing care.

Many troubled facilities "don't have enough help, and they let people lie in" soiled beds, which results in bed or pressure sores that become infected, he said.

"There are nursing home lawsuits because of the poor care of defenseless elderly individuals," he said. "It really is terrible in some situations. Some cases are mind-boggling, with people with maggots in their extremities and bedsores all the way to the bone."

Hill said his firm has about 20 nursing home lawsuits pending against facilities in the Mid-South. Morris said his law firm has about three dozen lawsuits pending against Mid-South nursing homes.

Nursing home defense lawyer Rebecca Adelman said these "David and Goliath" lawsuits have been fueled by multimillion-dollar verdicts.

"It has become extremely lucrative for plaintiffs," said Adelman, who said she knows of at least 50 lawsuits pending against Memphis nursing homes.

"One of the reasons why they are so lucrative is they are very emotional cases. They have a tendency to inflame and impassion juries," she said.

"Juries get very angry at nursing homes if they think they have not cared for residents. It is that level of anger that has resulted in extremely large verdicts."

She said such lawsuits give a "wholly inaccurate" picture of the nursing home industry.

The Smith lawsuit accuses the county of numerous improprieties, including gross negligence, medical malpractice, violation of the state adult protection and nursing home residents' acts, consumer and fraud laws and breach of contract.

"The lack of care provided to Everlina Smith in her last months alive shocks the conscience and should never have occurred," the lawsuit states, noting the county and its nursing home staff "completely failed to care and provide for Smith.

"The cause of this complete breakdown in care was the chronic understaffing at Oakville. Defendants were deliberately indifferent to the problems, which resulted from the continual shortage of competent staff to address the Oakville resident's needs."

Oakville opened in 1921 as a tuberculosis sanitarium, but by the 1960s had become home to poor county residents in need of long-term health care. Patients range from children to centenarians.

In 1996, the county entered into a five-year contract with ServiceMaster Diversified Health Services to manage the facility, but the contract expired 15 months ago. Some of the lawsuits that have been filed in recent years also cite ServiceMaster as a defendant. "We have no comment," said ServiceMaster spokesman Steve Bono from the corporate office in Downer's Grove, Ill. "We don't comment about anything where litigation is involved.''

A sampling of the lawsuits that have been filed against Oakville:

Victoria Green Matthews, 83, was at Oakville just six weeks in late 1999 but died an "agonizing death" precipitated by a lack of care at the facility, according to a lawsuit. Matthews had been able to live alone prior to entering Oakville, where she was sent after she was hospitalized for dehydration and an impacted colon. During six weeks at Oakville, she was in and out of the hospital with infections, and the Oakville staff is accused of failing to give her prescribed medications.

Retired public relations executive Glen Fox, who lost more than 20 pounds in seven months at Oakville, "was neglected at this nursing home, was not provided adequate food or water, and became severely malnourished and dehydrated. As a result of neglect and his resulting injuries, Glen F. Fox died on Jan. 9, 2000." The nursing home had inadequate staff and inadequate medical treatment for its residents, the lawsuit said.

A nurse who entered Walter Holst's room at Oakville thought he was dead, so she removed the oxygen tube and covered him with a sheet; nurses who entered the room a short while later found him gasping for air but could not revive him, says the lawsuit.

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