Plea Made for Patient Who Gouged Out His Eyes

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

A D.C. Council member blasted government officials yesterday for trying to collect $2.2 million in medical bills from a mentally ill man who gouged out his eyes while he was a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said it was "outrageous, unfair and immoral" for the city to seek the money after the guardian for Frank Harris Jr. filed a lawsuit against the District in D.C. Superior Court. The suit says the city was not properly supervising Harris when he used his hands to gouge out his eyes in March 2003 at the District-run psychiatric hospital.

Mendelson accused the city of preparing the bill to discourage the guardian from pursuing the lawsuit. He joined the guardian, Janice Motley of Bowie, and her attorney, Joseph Cammarata, at a news conference yesterday outside the courthouse.

"This bill is an attempt to punish Mrs. Motley and Frank Harris," Cammarata said.

Harris, 55, who has schizophrenia, has been committed by court order to St. Elizabeths since 1973, after his arrest on burglary. In court papers, Cammarata alleges that the hospital failed to stop Harris from harming himself despite a doctor's warning that he be kept under one-to-one supervision and in restraints. Days before the incident, the court papers say, Harris spoke about demons that were telling him to pull out his eyes. But the hospital permitted Harris to temporarily be out of the restraints, Cammarata said.

Motley's suit was filed in October, seeking $10 million in damages. Three months later, District officials sent her a notice saying that she owed more than $2 million for Harris's room and board at St. Elizabeths from 1987 to 2005.

It was the first notice Motley said she had ever received since Harris was committed to the hospital and declared indigent. Harris, who is now blind, remains a patient at the hospital. Motley has known Harris since he was a youth.

Mendelson said the District's billing could cause others to avoid suing the city for fear of financial recourse. He has asked Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to withdraw the bill, as has the council chairman, Vincent C. Gray (D). Details about the case were first reported by the Examiner.

George Valentine, the District's deputy attorney general for civil litigation, said the memo, which at the bottom reads, "payment in full is due upon receipt of this statement," was not a bill but instead a setoff that would go into effect only if a jury ruled in Harris's favor and awarded compensation. If a jury failed to award financial compensation, Valentine said, Harris would not have to pay.

Valentine said such policies are standard with the city. Whenever patients who were once declared indigent get financial windfalls, they are required to pay for the care they received, he said. Valentine said that Harris's estate could challenge the setoff and that the final bill would be determined by a judge.

"To some people, it looks like we're trying to mitigate the process to counter a lawsuit, which we are not," Valentine said. "This has been a consistent policy."

In a letter yesterday responding to Gray and Mendelson, Fenty's general counsel, Peter Nickles, said requiring payment is "mandatory" under D.C. law.

Mendelson said the city had a choice in seeking such payments. "They act like this law leaves them with no discretion," he said.

Mendelson has pointed out that Fenty sided with him and Gray on a similar case when Fenty was on the D.C. Council.

In 2002, Fenty, who at that time represented Ward 4, joined the other council members in writing a letter urging then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to refrain from filing liens against the estates of six mentally retarded patients who died under the city's care. At that time, the government was being sued as part of a class-action case regarding the District's care. The city never collected on the liens.

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