Staff accused of abuse at state-run hospital claim immunity

Sunday, May 6, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Several staff members accused of abusing a patient over several weeks at Connecticut's only maximum-security psychiatric hospital are claiming government immunity as a defense against a lawsuit filed by the patient's brother. They also claim any injuries he had were the result of his own wrongdoing.

Ten staff members at the Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown have been criminally charged and more than three dozen have been suspended in connection with abuse allegations involving patient William Shehadi.

A state report said Shehadi was subjected to numerous instances of abuse over several weeks last year. Staff members put a diaper on his head, threw food at him, poured water over him, put salt in his coffee, kicked him and placed a mop on his head after cleaning a floor, the report said. Many of the incidents were recorded by surveillance cameras.

Shehadi's brother, Albert Shehadi, is suing a dozen staff members in federal court, accusing them of violating his constitutional rights, assault and other allegations. He also has filed a lawsuit in state court against the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which oversees the hospital, the agency's commissioner and 11 supervisors at Whiting.

Seven of the staff members being sued in federal court have filed responses, most of them in the past two weeks, denying any wrongdoing, claiming government immunity from the lawsuit and saying William Shehadi was responsible for any injuries he had. The workers are state government employees.

Antonio Ponvert III, a lawyer for the Shehadis, said he believes the staff members cannot claim immunity.

"The defendants' assertion of a sovereign immunity defense betrays a profound misunderstanding of constitutional law," he said. "The nurses and forensic specialists who abused Mr. Shehadi are sued in their individual capacities, not as officials of the state.

"They will be personally liable for the judgment rendered by the jury, and will be required to pay that out of their own assets," he said.

Brian Woolf, a lawyer for forensic head nurse and defendant Mark Cusson, has said there is evidence that William Shehadi was an "extremely difficult patient and some of the actions they took were justified."

Albert Shehadi told state lawmakers at a hearing about his brother in November that the surveillance videos show "an atmosphere of almost constant menace." He said there were about 50 episodes of abuse over 24 days, most occurring when his brother was sleeping.

"The abuse my brother suffered is hard to imagine," he said. "It was the feeling of cats playing with a cornered mouse that was most disturbing to me."

William Shehadi was committed to the hospital in 1995 after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of his father in Greenwich.

Lawyers for the Shehadis accuse the staff of physical abuse, neglect, exploitation, humiliation and psychological torture.

The federal lawsuit remains pending in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport. It seeks undisclosed damages. No trial date has been set.