Legal claim filed over psych ward death

July 8, 2008 3:05:50 PM PDT
The family of a woman whose death in a Brooklyn psychiatric ward was caught on surveillance footage say they intend to file a $25 million lawsuit. "What I want is justice," Tecia Harrison said, hours after her family notified the hospital, the city and the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation in court papers that they intend to file a $25 million lawsuit. "Whoever committed a criminal act should be held responsible."

The death of 49-year-old Esmin Elizabeth Green sparked outrage when surveillance footage surfaced, showing her collapsing face-down on the floor of the Kings County Hospital Center's psychiatric emergency waiting room after being there for nearly 24 hours.

She was largely ignored for about an hour, with security guards and a member of the Brooklyn hospital's staff appearing to notice her prone body at least three times without making any visible efforts to see if she needed help.

By the time a woman from the medical staff approached her, nudging Green's body with her foot, the stricken patient was already dead.

At 31, Harrison is the eldest of the six children Green left behind in Jamaica when she moved to the United States in 2000 to find work and send money home. Now, Harrison is left with an overflow of questions about how her mother ended up involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward - falling ill and dying hundreds of miles from her immediate family and with no one by her side.

"I had to see for myself what my mother sat there and went through," Harrison said of her decision to watch the video of her mother's death. "It was heartbreaking. Something inside of me died right there with my mom."

The city Department of Investigation is examining the case with the cooperation of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which oversees Kings County Hospital, said DOI spokeswoman Dianne Struzzi. The Brooklyn district attorney's office is also involved, and will make the final determination whether to prosecute, Struzzi said. The medical examiner's office has performed an autopsy and is doing further tests to determine the cause of death.

Representatives of the HHC and Kings County Hospital did not immediately return calls seeking comment. HHC's president, Alan Aviles, earlier said that he was shocked and distressed by the situation and promised a thorough investigation.

The family's lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, accused the hospital staff of attempting to cover up neglect. In patient records marked 6 a.m. and 6:20 a.m., when surveillance footage shows Green on the floor, staffers wrote instead that she was "awake, up and about" or sitting quietly.

Six people were fired as a result of the incident in the psychiatric unit, which had already been a subject of complaints and lawsuits by advocates for the mentally ill. The Department of Justice began investigating allegations of patient mistreatment earlier this year.

Harrison said she believes her mother was not experiencing a psychiatric crisis, but was simply homesick for her children and grandchildren in Jamaica. She believed her mother to be in perfect health, she said, but acknowledged she might not have known if something was seriously wrong.

"My mommy was so loving and protecting of her kids, that if she was even there (in the hospital) she would not tell us," she said.

"She'd know we would be so worried and anxious."

Recent and future reforms to the Kings County Psychiatric Emergency Program include:

  • Additional staffing
  • Expanded crisis prevention training for staff, including managing of agitated patients
  • Expanded space to address overcrowding
  • Shorten patient wait time for treatment, release or placement to inpatient bed
  • The appointment of a new interim administrator who will report directly to Mr. Aviles
  • Patients in the psychiatric emergency unit will be checked every 15 minutes
  • A clinical staff person will be assigned this responsibility for each shift
  • Timely documentation of patient care and assessment"

    WEB PRODUCED BY: Scott Curkin