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Wrongful Death Verdict Against California Rehab Facility Upheld

Rehab-Facility-Injury-Attorneys-300x199In California, close family members of people who die are entitled to pursue compensation through wrongful death claims when their loved ones’ deaths are caused by the negligent actions of others. In Green v. Healthcare Services, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. G057950, the appeals court considered whether a patient’s suicide at a treatment facility qualified as a superseding cause and should have prevented a finding of negligence against the defendant.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Jeffrey Green was a 33-year-old man who had struggled with opioid addiction since he was 16. He started by using Oxycontin and began taking high doses of methadone beginning at age 27. Greene called Lighthouse, residential, voluntary treatment and mental health facility for an intake interview. During the interview, he told the intake person that he wanted to live but not the way that he was. He also stated that he needed to get off of methadone. He also informed the intake person that his father had committed suicide a few years before but denied any suicidal ideations himself. Green signed a “no harm” contract upon his entry to the facility in which he agreed that he would not harm himself.

A marriage and family therapist intern, Andrew Jonas, completed an assessment of Green upon his entry into the facility. Green again denied any suicidal thoughts, and Jonas assessed him as having no risk of suicide or self-harm.

Green completed six days of detox and stated that he felt great. Before he was transferred from the detox unit to the rehabilitation unit, he was again assessed by Mirela Elena Casapu, another marriage and family therapist intern. She noted that Green seemed anxious and was exhibiting some symptoms of withdrawal. However, she also noted that he denied any suicidal ideations or thoughts of self-harm. Dr. Michael Bishara, the treating doctor at Lighthouse, decided to approve the transfer of Green from detox to rehabilitation.

After his transfer to rehabilitation, Green handed Casapu a note telling her his mother’s and brother’s phone numbers. In the note, he stated that he was doing great but was barely hanging on. The note also stated that if Green left the facility for Casapu to tell the police that he was suicidal. Casapu informed the program coordinator, program administrator, and the program director immediately about the note from Green. She also called Dr. Preet Joneja, the supervising psychologist. He instructed Casapu to assess Green and to call the psychiatric emergency team if needed.

Casapu spent one hour with Green administering a suicide risk assessment. She noted that he was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, seemed anxious, and reported that he had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past. He denied having any suicidal ideations and said that he had never attempted suicide before. She decided that he was not suicidal and did not call the psychiatric emergency team.

Dr. Joneja ordered Green to receive visual checks every 30 minutes from staff to ensure that he was okay. Casapu left the facility at 6 pm and stated that she had informed the oncoming staff to check on Green every 30 minutes. However, the staff did not note that Green had received visual checks in his chart.

Casapu’s assessment of Green finished at 5:30 pm. Green was subsequently seen pacing near the medication room. He was offered anxiety medication, which he declined three times. He then called his brother and told him that he was okay.

At 6:10, Chuck Richards, the executive director of the facility, spoke to Green. Green told him that he was excited about his transfer to rehabilitation and did not indicate anything to make Richards believe that he was suicidal. A support staff, David Fairweather, told Green at 6:25 that group therapy would be starting at 6:30. Green subsequently climbed onto the roof of the facility and jumped to his death at 6:39.

Barbara Green, David Green’s mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Healthcare Services, the parent company of Lighthouse. She alleged multiple causes of action, including negligence, negligent hiring and supervision, wrongful death, negligent and intentional misrepresentation, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lighthouse filed a motion for nonsuit on the causes of action for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and negligent hiring and supervision, which the court granted. The case proceeded to a jury trial on the wrongful death and negligence claims.

At trial, Lighthouse asked the court to instruct the jury about the defense of superseding cause. The proposed jury instruction stated that Lighthouse argued that it was not responsible because Green’s suicide was a superseding cause of his death and the harm suffered by Barbara Green as a result. The trial court denied the proposed jury instruction and said that a superseding cause defense did not apply because Lighthouse was a cause of harm to Barbara Green.

Lighthouse also proposed some jury instructions about premises liability and the requirement that a property owner should have actual or constructive notice of a hazardous condition on the property. The court denied those instructions after Barbara Green’s attorney said he would not argue those issues at trial. During his closing argument, Barbara Green’s attorney argued that it was dangerous to allow patients to have access to the roof, noting that Green had to go over a railing to get to the roof. He also stated that the CEO had told an accrediting body that Lighthouse could not barricade roof access at the direction of the fire department and told the jury that was untrue. Lighthouse’s counsel objected to the statement, but the court overruled the objection.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Barbara Green, finding that Lighthouse was 65% negligent, and David Green was 35% negligent. It awarded a gross verdict of $1.7 million for past damages and $2.2 million for future losses. Lighthouse filed a motion for a new trial, but the motion was denied. It then filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether the court erred by failing to instruct the jury on the superseding event defense and on premises liability?

On appeal, Lighthouse argued the court committed a prejudicial error by failing to instruct the jury on the superseding event defense and on the elements of premises liability. It argued that the court was wrong in concluding that Green’s suicide was not a superseding cause of his death and the resulting harm to his mother and that the court also erred by rejecting its instructions about premises liability.

Rule: A party can ask the court to give a nonargumentative jury instruction about each issue it intends to argue.

Either party to a trial can ask the court to give nonargumentative jury instructions about the theories they intend to argue at trial as long as they are correct statements of the law. However, a failure to give a requested instruction is not necessarily prejudicial.

Analysis

Drug rehab facilities can be found negligent when they fail to appropriately supervise patients within their facilities to prevent them from overdosing on drugs.[2] However, this case considered whether a facility could be found negligent when its failure to appropriately supervise a patient resulted in his suicide by jumping off the roof of the facility.
The court evaluated the proposed jury instructions that had been submitted by Lighthouse. It noted that while either party can request the court to instruct the jury about the theories they intend to argue at trial, failing to give a proposed instruction can only result in a reversal when the omission results in a miscarriage of justice. The court noted that an error in instructions is a reversible error only when there is a substantial likelihood that it prejudicially affected the verdict.

The court started by considering the court’s refusal to instruct the jury about a superseding event. It first noted that as an affirmative defense, Lighthouse was required to assert it in the answer and did not do so. However, the court still decided to determine the issue on the merits. The court found that it was not waived since Barbara Green had notice based on the briefings in the case before trial.

The court still found that the trial court did not err by failing to give the superseding event instruction to the jury. Superseding events only include those that are extraordinary and unforeseeable by the defendant. In Green’s case, the court found that his risk of suicide was reasonably foreseeable based on his statements, and so it did not qualify as a superseding event.

The court then considered the proposed premises liability instruction. It noted that Barbara Green had not alleged a premises liability cause of action and that general negligence rather than premises liability was at issue in the case. It thus found that the trial court did not err by denying Lighthouse’s proposed premises liability instructions.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Lighthouse was ordered to pay Barbara Green’s costs on appeal.

Speak with an experienced Los Angeles wrongful death lawyer

If you have lost a close family member because of the negligent acts of staff in a treatment facility, you may have legal rights to recover compensation. Schedule a free consultation with a wrongful death attorney at the law firm of the Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers, APC today by calling 866-966-5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2021/g057950.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-09-03-personal-injury-9eef7b56af&utm_content=text-case-read-more-5

[2] https://www.victimslawyer.com/blog/lawsuit-against-class-a-drug-rehab-facility-in-los-angeles-shows-legal-liability-for-untrained-staff/

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