A D.C. jury has awarded $2.9 million in what is believed to be the largest verdict against the District over the negligent care of a mentally disabled resident.
The judgment in U.S. District Court on April 18 was the climax of a decade-old lawsuit against the city by the family of Curtis Suggs, who suffered from profound developmental disabilities and cerebral palsy and died in 2000 at age 68. Suggs spent more than three decades in the District’s long-troubled system for the mentally disabled, surviving until a treatable spinal condition erupted in the last five years of his life into the maladies that contributed to his death.
The operator of the group home where Suggs lived previously settled for $900,000.
His sister, Carrie Weaver, hailed the verdict last week. “I’m very, very disappointed that it’s taken so long,” she said in a telephone interview from her South Carolina home. “I hope and pray no one else has to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Weaver cared for Suggs until 1967, when a court found him “feeble-minded” and “incapable of managing his affairs.” He was sent to Forest Haven, the District’s home in Laurel for the mentally disabled. He lived there until 1984, when he was sent to live in a Takoma group home operated by the nonprofit Symbral Foundation.
In the months leading up to his death, Suggs deteriorated rapidly.
After undergoing surgery to treat a severe bedsore, he developed gangrene in his foot, leading to the amputation of his leg. Within months, Suggs was hospitalized again with breathing difficulties and unsteady blood pressure. Suffering from a paralyzed diaphragm, he died on June 30, 2000.
A doctor who reviewed Suggs’s medical records shortly after his death suggested that a spinal compression in his neck could have contributed to the respiratory issues. An autopsy confirmed the connection.
The spinal issue was long known to the doctors and administrators overseeing Suggs’s care. As early as 1995, caretakers were aware of neurological issues after he began to lose the use of his arms. A District caseworker was notified of the concerns, but it wasn’t until 1997 that Suggs was examined by a neurologist, who suggested that spinal compression in the neck could be the cause of Suggs’s maladies. Weeks passed before an MRI confirmed the diagnosis.
Later in 1997, a surgeon recommended that Suggs undergo a serious but straightforward surgical procedure that’s a common treatment for spinal compression. But the team of doctors, nurses and District administrators overseeing his care sought a second opinion — a process that took more than a year.
By the time the District sought Weaver’s consent to proceed with the surgery, it was August 1999, and Suggs had deteriorated further. A third neurosurgeon weighed in that December, saying that the procedure would be unlikely to help Suggs. Within six months, he was dead.
In a February opinion granting summary judgment, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth found “deliberate indifference” in the District’s failure to ensure that Suggs received necessary care.
“As the lengthy inaction by Mr. Suggs’s [District government] case manager makes clear, no reasonable juror could find that the District of Columbia’s monitoring of Symbral’s care for Mr. Suggs was anything but negligent,” Lamberth wrote.
Ariel B. Levinson-Waldman, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office, said the city would ask Lamberth to reject or reduce the jury verdict. No determination has been made about further appeals, he said.
Observers agreed that the size of the jury verdict is unusual and likely unprecedented; other cases brought on behalf of individual residents in the District’s care system have been settled for smaller amounts. The verdict also comes as the District labors to improve its care of the mentally disabled under an agreement reached in a federal class action lawsuit dating back to 1976.
Laura L. Nuss, director of the D.C. Department on Disability Services, said in a statement that the District disagrees with the Suggs verdict. She said the city has established “comprehensive management oversight . . . to ensure timely and appropriate medical and other follow up care for individuals,” including having a physician available to assist in medical decision-making.
Attorney Harvey S. Williams, who represented the Suggs family, acknowledged improvements but said the verdict should remind the city that close scrutiny remains necessary.
“The system has gotten better since all these things happened to Curtis Suggs,” he said. “But I think the same systemic problem exists, where medical needs are identified but there’s no properly functioning oversight from the city to make sure these problems are addressed.”
There indeed continue to be concerns. The latest report filed by the class action’s court-appointed monitor discussed a pair of 2011 deaths where posthumous reviews raised questions of whether disabled residents received needed care.
One man, who died from complications from colon cancer, experienced a 20-month delay in gaining approval for a colonoscopy. Had it been performed sooner, a doctor wrote, “his cancer may have been picked up at an earlier stage, with a better prognosis and life expectancy.”