Wrongful Death Lawsuit Settled

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State Agrees To Pay $2.33 Million

by Josh Kovner
The Hartford Courant

February 14, 2006

MIDDLETOWN — The state has agreed to a $2.33 million settlement with the parents of James Bell, a patient at the Whiting Forensic Institute who died in 2002 while being restrained by staff members at the psychiatric facility.

The payment avoids a trial in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family and is believed by the parents' lawyers to be the largest payout in a negligence case ever at Whiting.

Bell died from a heart attack on April 3, 2002.

Cuffed at the wrists and ankles and pinned to the floor on his back, he was making gurgling sounds and had begun to choke on his tongue, according to staff notes and other medical records that lawyer Antonio Ponvert III was prepared to present at trial.

Bell had dilated pupils, a faint pulse and blood in his mouth when staff administered Thorazine, a powerful sedative. His pulse then stopped, Ponvert asserted in the lawsuit.

The case notes contain statements from Bell's doctors that they thought he was playing possum, Ponvert said.

"Twenty-four staff members, including his treating physician and treating psychiatrist, stood around and watched James Bell die. Not one of them took any steps to save his life," Ponvert said Monday.

"In 16 years of doing these kinds of negligence cases, I have never heard, or read, anything like this," he said. Ponvert, along with lawyer James Nugent, represents Bell's parents.

The facility is part of Connecticut Valley Hospital. The U.S. Department of Justice began a probe in December of patient treatment, restraint and seclusion issues at Whiting and CVH. Investigators with the Justice Department's civil rights branch intend to inspect the sprawling Middletown campus in March.

Wayne Dailey, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Addiction Services, said that since Bell's death, Whiting has made significant changes in staff training programs and emergency medical procedures to prevent such a fatality from happening again.

Dailey said he had not seen the settlement language Monday and declined to discuss the motivation and the timing of the agreement. He did not say whether the staff members involved with Bell were retrained, reassigned or lost their jobs.

"It's a massive amount of money for the state to voluntarily pay," Ponvert said.

The $2.33 million settlement consists of two parts: A $1.25 million cash payment to Bell's mother and father, Mattie and Broadus Bell Sr., and the waiver of a lien that requires people on state public assistance to pay back the cost of the aid if they win a cash settlement in a lawsuit.

In this instance, the state agreed to waive a debt of $1.08 million.

Bell, 39, was 6 feet 4, 350 pounds. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and in his case the paranoia would periodically trigger aggression. He had a history of assaults or attempted assaults on staff members, Ponvert said.

He also suffered from sleep apnea, a breathing disorder, and was diagnosed as being morbidly obese, having gained 100 pounds between the time of his admission to CVH in November 1998 and his death in 2002. Ponvert said Bell was also not getting the proper anti-psychotic medication.

On the day of his death, Bell was restrained after acting aggressively toward staff. The restraints were not relaxed, even as his condition worsened. Instead, Bell, still shackled, was rolled onto a blanket and dragged into a seclusion room, Ponvert said.

Despite a nurse's warnings about Bell's pupils and pulse, and observations of blood in his mouth, "incredibly defendant Scott (Dr. Keith Scott, Bell's treating psychiatrist) then ordered that [Bell] be injected with 100 milligrams of Thorazine," the lawsuit asserted.

Ponvert said the use of Thorazine in the Bell case violated CVH and state mental health department policies and helped cause Bell's respiratory and cardiac arrest.

State police investigated; no criminal charges were filed.

The lawsuit named 24 staff members, CVH and state officials, and state agencies, including Scott and Thomas A. Kirk Jr., commissioner of mental health and addiction services. Kirk was not present when Bell died and was sued in his capacity as head of the mental health system. The defendants were represented by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's office. Scott could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

"He did have incidents of assault in his history. He certainly posed a risk of harm to staff," said Ponvert. "And it's absolutely necessary to have protections for staff in place."

"But what happened here was, they just didn't see him as a human being or a patient anymore," he said. "They saw him as a person who was a risk, a pain for staff. And when the situation became a medical emergency, they did nothing. They watched him die. This was egregious negligence."