State hospital sued over man's death

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by Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer

January 29, 2004

MANCHESTER — As James Bell lay dying after being restrained at a state hospital nearly two years ago, more than a dozen doctors, nurses, and guards stood watch, contending they thought the obese psychiatric patient was faking his symptoms.

Today, Bell's family was to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Bridgeport Superior Court against the state and those attending Bell at the Whiting Forensic Hospital for the criminally insane in Middletown, saying they caused or could have prevented his death on April 3, 2002.Bell, 39, had a criminal record dating back 17 years that included charges of misdemeanor assault and felony burglary.

The lawsuit seeks in excess of $15,000 in punitive damages, alleging Bell was denied proper treatment and medication to control paranoid schizophrenia and that staffers showed deliberate indifference to his safety and used excess force while restraining him.The state also provided inadequate training for Whiting personnel, according to the suit, which names 24 defendants, including the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which operates the hospital, Commissioner Thomas A. Kirk Jr., and Bell's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Scott.State officials for the mental health agency declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it's pending litigation.

In April, the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities reported that roughly 25 workers responded to assist in restraining Bell after he became agitated and disruptive and attempted to strike a staff member. An autopsy by the state medical examiner's office proved inconclusive in determining the cause of Bell's death, but the investigation done by the state advocacy group for the disabled revealed Bell had suffered a heart attack while being restrained.The investigation further revealed that workers became so focused on gaining control of the 350-pound, 6-foot-4 man that no one was monitoring his medical condition.

According to the suit, staff members forced Bell down and shackled him on the floor and then watched as he lay motionless with his eyes closed, making "gurgling" noises.Whiting staffers, including his psychiatrist, later said they thought he was "playing possum" and pretending to be asleep.Family lawyer Antonio Ponvert III of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder of Bridgeport said Bell had been in the Whiting division of Connecticut Valley Hospital for nearly four years, so staff members were well aware of his medical condition and psychiatric needs.At one point after Bell had been subdued, a staff member checked his breathing and announced something was wrong, Ponvert said.

But "rather than immediately rendering emergency first aid, the Whiting staff dragged him, still on his back, to an isolation room," he said. "They saw his pupils were dilated. They saw blood in his mouth. They saw he was unresponsive, not moving, and not breathing."Still, rather than render care, and rather than trying to stimulate his breathing, they twice injected him with a powerful sedative, Thorazine, which produces a severe drop in a patient's blood pressure -- exactly the opposite of what should have been done," Ponvert continued.

"There was no way he could have survived this grossly negligent mistreatment."Bell, who had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, had gained more than 100 pounds and become morbidly obese while a patient at Whiting, and that had not been addressed by hospital staff, Ponvert further charges.Staffers also were aware that Bell had a condition called obstructive sleep apnea, which was aggravated by his obesity and made it difficult for Bell to breathe while lying on his back, Ponvert said.