A D.C. Superior Court court judge yesterday awarded $500,000 in damages to the estate of a young Nigerian woman who committed suicide less than four hours after Howard University hospital emergency room officials diagnosed her as not being suicidal and released her.
Genevieve Ekaete, who had a long history of mental problems and had been diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, told hospital officials that she was depressed when she went to the emergency room on June 25, 1978, according to lawyers for her estate.
"I want to kill myself. No lose a part of my body . . . because I have compromised myself and my friends," the 28-year-old Ekaete told one hospital official who examined her, according to hospital records introduced as evidence at the trial. She was released from the hospital at about 2:30 p.m.
A few hours later, Ekaete, who was naked, walked onto the balcony of her apartment at 1629 Columbia Rd. NW and climbed over the railing. She dangled for a few seconds from the ledge, clinging to it with her hands, and then plunged four stories to her death, according to Melinda Gray Murray, a lawyer for her estate.
Lawyers for the estate argued in court that Ekaete should have been hospitalized at Howard for treatment and that the hospital's failure to do so constituted negligence.
Judge John D. Fauntleroy, who presided over the nonjury trial, agreed that the hospital was liable for Ekaete's death and awarded $500,000 in damages to the estate.
Howard's attorney argued in court that the hospital was not negligent and that it had to rely largely on the judgment of the resident psychiatric physician who concluded that Ekaete's condition did not require immediate hospitalization. The hospital noted in the case that Ekaete had told emergency room officials that she planned to contact her private pyschiatrist the next day. It also said that Ekaete had not previously tried to commit suicide, according to court papers.
Yesterday's verdict is the second major malpractice decision against the hospital's emergency room in the last three months. In May, a Superior Court jury awarded $3.75 million in damages to a Northwest Washington man who was permanently disabled after the hospital's emergency room personnel allegedly failed to promptly diagnose and operate on his fractured skull. The man waited 12 hours in the emergency room before he was examined for his injuries.
A spokesman for Howard yesterday said the university would have no comment on the two verdicts. R. Kenneth Mundy, the hospital's lawyer in the Ekaete case, said Howard is considering appealing that decision.
One-third of the $500,000 award would go to the estate's attorneys, Murray and Daniel E. Schultz, and the bulk of the remainder -- more than $300,000 -- will go to Ekaete's 11-year-old daughter who lives in Nigeria.
Murray said Ekaete, who had been a writer employed by Howard, and a contributor to Essence magazine, had a master's degree from Columbia School of Journalism and was a doctoral candidate in African studies at Howard. She was under a lot of strain at the time of her death and was about to return to Nigeria to take a one-year teaching job at a university there, Murray said.
Immediately before her death, Ekaete had been hospitalized for about 11 days at Howard for treatment of her mental problems and was released on June 6, 1978.