A judge has ordered the state agency that operates Washington's largest psychiatric hospital to pay more than $2 million to four female health workers who were assaulted by a violent patient who targeted women.
One of the nurses who filed the lawsuit, Bernia Garner, lost part of her ear when the patient vaulted over the nurses station, knocked her to the ground, choked her and bite off part of her earlobe.
That same Western State Hospital patient grabbed Kaitlyn Tritt's hair with both hands and wouldn't let go. Staff tried to released his grip but the patient and nurse ended up on the floor with her hair wrapped around her neck, as he tried to choke her.
The patient also attacked nurse Karen Jolley-Arnold several days later while screaming that he was going to kill her, and repeatedly struck her in the leg, causing a debilitating wound. He jumped on Eloisa Panza during a night shift, knocking her to the ground and trying to bite her thigh.
Their lawsuit claimed hospital supervisors and the Department of Social and Health Services knew the patient repeatedly attacked women but they failed to provide a safe environment.
“There’s no real accountability,” said James Beck, the lawyer representing the workers. “They tell the Legislature that they are properly responding to assaults based on reports by investigators, but nobody’s utilizing them.”
The Pierce County also judge ordered the agency to pay an additional $2.6 million to cover attorney's fees and other costs. That decision was on Aug. 9. The jury's verdict was reached May 27 and the judge approved it June 21.
State officials say they don't plan to appeal the jury's verdict.
“The safety of our staff and patients at Western State Hospital and all of our 24/7 facilities is one of our highest priorities and we continue to focus our efforts in this area,” department spokesman Tyler Hemstreet said in an email.
After years of failing health and safety inspections, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stripped the hospital in 2018 of its certification and federal funding, totaling $53 million a year. It also lost its accreditation with the Joint Commission. Neither has been restored.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has repeatedly cited Lakewood-based Western State Hospital for maintaining an unsafe work environment, Beck said.
The patient who attacked the workers and others had been civilly committed to the hospital in 2017. A state report in 2018 said he “had ongoing assaultive behavior on a somewhat regular basis. He frequently required one-to-one monitoring and repeatedly targeted females with long, dark hair and attempted to pull their hair. This included both staff and other patients.”
When he attacked nurse Arnold, he kicked her in the leg where she had suffered a pervious injury, Beck said. It impacted her mobility and it took a year for it to become stable. She also suffered psychological trauma from being assaulted at work, he said.
The state refused to find her a new position so she suffered physically and economically, he said.
The jury found that the state knew about the patient's behavior and “failed to take reasonably prompt and adequate corrective action reasonably designed to end it.” They also said the state did not “reasonably accommodate" the employees' disabilities and impairments.
They awarded past and future benefits for Arnold and Garner. Eloisa Panza is the only one still working at the hospital, Beck said.
A separate lawsuit filed by hospital worker Daniel Dawson claimed another patient had a history of assaulting and targeting African American staff, but officials failed to take appropriate corrective action. The patient called Dawson racist names and attacked him in 2018 and 2019.
“Western State Hospital violated Dawson’s rights through its deliberate indifference in creating a dangerous work environment with its continued violation of workplace safety regulations,” his lawsuit said.
The state agreed to settle his case for $375,000.