Blind Injustice

Monday, September 3, 2007

ASTORM OF protest erupted when the D.C. government sought reimbursement for medical and living expenses from the estates of mentally disabled people who died while in its care. Rightly so; the deaths of these vulnerable men and women were caused by the negligent, even criminal, treatment provided by the city. Now comes the case of Frank Harris Jr., and it seems common sense and decency are once again in short supply at the Wilson Building.

Mr. Harris is a mentally ill man who was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1973 by reason of insanity on a burglary charge. The dreadful details of his case, as first reported by the Washington Examiner, are that he used his hands to gouge out his eyes when the hospital allegedly failed to provide proper supervision.

A guardian for Mr. Harris, who is now blind, sued the city and was told in turn that if the $10 million claim were to succeed, it should be reduced by the more than $2.2 million the city is owed for Mr. Harris's room and board. Officials say the law mandates the filing of this so-called "setoff."

No doubt city lawyers are correctly doing their job in trying to minimize the fiscal impact of lawsuits against the city. Still there is no getting around the sick logic -- not to mention mean-spiritedness -- of the city essentially being able, as D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) put it, to bill for its own negligence. A court will decide whether the District indeed was at fault; apparently the incident happened quickly when an orderly freed Mr. Harris, who has schizophrenia, from restraints to use the bathroom.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) need not wait to put things right. For starters, he should reread the advice he gave to then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) in 2002 when he was one of 12 council members pushing for the policy to be rescinded. As their letter to the mayor stated, these liens are "hard to justify as a matter of public policy, public relations, and agency accountability. . . . [Their filing] has not been the most prudent exercise of judgment."

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