Suit Seeks More Than $4 Million In Man's Death

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James Bell Died While In Restraints

by Alaine Griffin
The Hartford Courant

January 30, 2004

MIDDLETOWN — A lawsuit filed against the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital and others involved in the care of a 39-year-old psychiatric patient who died of a heart attack while being restrained at the hospital seeks punitive damages in excess of $4 million.

Though the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Superior Court in Bridgeport, said the family of James Bell is seeking unspecified monetary damages, a notice filed last February with the state claims commissioner puts the minimum amount at $4 million.

The wrongful death lawsuit accuses the hospital; the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services; the department's commissioner, Thomas A. Kirk Jr.; and five physicians, nurses and other Whiting staff; of failing to properly care for Bell.

Bell stayed at the hospital from Nov. 18, 1998 until April 3, 2002, the day he died. Whiting staff acted with "reckless or callous indifference to James Bell's dignity as a human being and to his constitutional and statutory rights," the lawsuit states.

The family's lawyer, Antonio Ponvert III, claims inadequate training and negligent care by doctors and staff at Whiting contributed to Bell's death. Bell, 6 feet 4 and nearly 350 pounds, died after Whiting staff used restraints to move him into a secluded hospital room after he became disruptive.

The lawsuit charges the hospital failed to treat Bell's medical conditions, which included sleep apnea and obesity. Bell, who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, also did not get medicine he needed to treat his mental condition, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit claims the staff accused Bell of "playing possum" or faking his distress and that staff neglected to use a "wedge" or other device on Bell that they had used in the past to help him breath while he was being restrained.

On Thursday, Wayne Dailey, a spokesman for the state's mental health agency, called Bell's death a "sad and tragic event." He said the incident was referred to and reviewed by state police, the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The state advocate's report alleged Whiting staff dismissed signs of distress indicating Bell was suffering a heart attack at the time he was being restrained with handcuffs and shackles. Bell spent most of his life in and out of state facilities following court action on criminal charges dating back 17 years. Those charges included misdemeanor assault and felony burglary.

The advocate's report also suggested a series of policy and procedural changes, such as improved monitoring of a patient's medical condition.

Results of the state police and federal investigation could not be determined Thursday.

A hospital review of the circumstances surrounding Bell's death was also conducted "in accordance with the hospital peer review process," Dailey said. State law, he said, protects the results of that review from being made public.

"Reviews and investigations were both internal and external," Dailey said. "We are continually in the process of improving the quality of care."

Bell's mother, Mattie Bell, described her son as a talented musician who could play at least a dozen instruments. She said filing the lawsuit gave her some peace.

"A crime has been committed and the guilty parties must be held accountable for what they have done," she said during a press conference Thursday at the Inn in Middletown. Bell's husband, Broadus, and five of their children were also there.

"When I think about the unreasonable force they used ... I become literally ill with pain," she said.

Whiting was investigated in 2001 after federal inspectors found it had been improperly restraining patients.