Elder Abuse Case Against Timber Ridge Yields $5 Million Verdict

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  • From Timber Ridge's website
Timber Ridge McKinleyville will pay the family of a woman who died under its care $5 million after a jury found the facility liable for wrongful death and elder abuse on Jan. 17. The amount includes $2.5 million in punitive damages.

The suit, brought by Valerie Monschke, a daughter of the resident, stems from an incident in September 2013 in which 90-year old woman, Marjorie Fitzpatrick, made her way into a courtyard and fell, breaking her wrist and nose and suffering a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage and intravicular hematoma (brain injuries). Fitzpatrick, a dementia patient, lay on the ground between 30 and 45 minutes before she was noticed and hospitalized. She died less than a month later.

The attorney for the plaintiff, Timothy Needham of Janssen Malloy LLP, charged that the facility was guilty of elder abuse because caregivers had failed to give Fitzpatrick her anti-anxiety medication the day of her fall, meaning she was manic and agitated. A manifest of the facility’s monitoring system show that Fitzpatrick was restless and tried to leave the facility several times that day, opening several doors to the outside. Despite this, staff did not notice that she had exited a door into the courtyard before falling, despite her exit triggering an alarm.

The jury backed up the plaintiff’s assertion that the facility should not have admitted Fitzpatrick in the first place as it did not have the proper staff or training to care for a patient with her level of dementia. The plaintiff also alleged that the facility did not properly assess Fitzpatrick before admitting her, and failed to properly monitor her to prevent falls, despite her having suffered one in July 2013.

In his closing arguments, Needham stated that the facility had broken its promises. The family paid $1,200 for an assessment that wasn’t done, and paid around $5,000 a month in rent, and Fitzpatrick’s care did not meet the standards of care promised by the facility, he told jurors.

“They said they were in need of more clients and therefore more money, by not doing the assessment they would be able to take on more clients,” Needham said.

The plaintiffs also alleged that Timber Ridge staff destroyed evidence in the case: shredding incident reports and statements, destroying a “pass down binder” or log, and taping over video that showed Fitzpatrick falling and lying injured on the ground.

He closed his statements by telling the jury that their verdict would be a referendum on “how the elderly will be treated in Humboldt County.”

The attorney for Timber Ridge, Rudy Nolen, said in his closing arguments that Needham’s assessment was “just wrong,” and that the facility was not responsible for providing nursing or medical care, although they have a nurse consultant available by phone. The caregivers, he said, had provided excellent care for the majority of Fitzpatrick’s stay in the dementia unit.

“For 455 days she was there, and 453 of those were uneventful,” he said.

He added that the case was complicated as there were two different burdens of proof using the same set of evidence, and the cost of damages as assessed by the plaintiff’s attorney were excessive.

“I don’t think there is any evidence of elder abuse in this case,” Nolen said repeatedly.

Reached today by phone, Needham said the verdict was sadly unusual in elder abuse cases.

“These cases are by definition extremely difficult to win,” he said. “You have to prove the case by clear and convincing evidence, and your best witness is deceased or has dementia. In this instance, you have an occasion where the defendants have made a concerted effort to destroy anything that would prove your case.”

Needham added that in many elder care facilities staff are very minimally trained.

“There’s less oversight in these facilities than there is to open a barbershop,” he said. “Only 1 in 10 cases of elder abuse are ever reported and less than 1 in 100 go to trial. It’s a damned shame.”

Erin Wohlfiel, director of marketing and creative development at Timber Ridge, sent the Journal the following statement:

"The death of any resident, for any reason, saddens us deeply. In this case, we acknowledge that mistakes were made, however inadvertently, and we will always regret that. We have learned from these mistakes and taken steps to prevent their recurrence."

She added:

"We have never had any other incident of this severity in our 17-year-history, and most Humboldt County residents know of our stellar reputation for compassionate and highly competent care. "

Wohlfiel could not comment on the accusations that employees had destroyed evidence in the case. She said the terms of the payment and whether the case will be appealed will be determined by the facility's insurance company.

In her obituary, Fitzpatrick is described as a very active member of her community. An Arcata resident since 1951 who volunteered with the United Way, Fitzpatrick served on the board of the Humboldt Area Foundation, the Redwoods United Foundation and on the advisory board of the California Criminal Justice Association. She also chaired the committee that created the cookbook A Taste of Humboldt, the proceeds of which went toward setting up a scholarship for members of the Youth Education Services program at Humboldt State University. According to Needham, at least part of the settlement will be donated to the Humboldt Area Foundation to continue her legacy, the Marjorie Fitzpatrick Cookbook Scholarship Fund.

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