Wilhelmina Franklin and George Austin Spells lived out their lives quietly, but their deaths earlier this year became a matter of public concern.
The 86-year-old Franklin, who for 17 years had lived at the city-run D.C. Village nursing home, was found in the early morning hours of Jan. 16 frozen to death next to her wheelchair on the grounds of the facility, which serves the city's elderly and indigent.
She had last been accounted for 7 1/2 hours earlier.
Spells, 71, was mentally and physically incapacitated when he received second- and third-degree burns from scalding bath water at D.C. Village on March 19. He died of his injuries on April 1.
The families of both Franklin and Spells sued the District government, claiming the city is responsible for the care and safety of the residents at D.C. Village and was negligent in discharging its duties.
Spells' sister, Katheryn Spells Jackson, has sought $4 million in damages and has claimed the city negligently allowed the water temperature at D.C. Village to exceed 110 degrees, the maximum allowed in nursing homes under city regulations designed to prevent scaldings.
In the Franklin case, her son is seeking $5 million in damages, claiming that the nursing home was understaffed, that employes were negligent by letting Franklin wander freely, that staff did not search for her when she was not in her room during bed checks and then did an inadequate search concentrated inside, rather than outside, the building.
Internal city documents have shown Franklin had a well-known habit of going outside in the cold.
In a recent response to the Franklin suit, the city denied that Franklin was allowed to wander freely, that the staff did an inadequate search for her, that the facility was understaffed and that her death was caused by the negligence of its employes.
It also argued that Franklin, not the city, was responsible for her own death.
"The injuries herein were caused by the acts of decedent . . . on her own violation [sic], in going outside into freezing temperatures without proper clothing and without giving notice to anyone of her intention to do so."
In an earlier response in the Spells case, the city made similar arguments, and said that to the extent the wheelchair-bound Spells was injured this was the result of "negligence and/or assumption of risk of plaintiff's decedent Spells ."
Internal nursing home records noted that Spells had tried to bathe himself unattended before and described him as "mentally confused."
Jackson's attorney, Dean Swartz, said this week that the city has asked him to submit a settlement demand, hoping not to go to court.
If the cases do go to trial, it will be decided in D.C. Superior Court to what extent the District government was, and is, responsible for the well-being and safety of the elderly residents in their care.
But regardless of what comes of the suits, the two unnatural deaths warranted a prompt and thorough review of the operation of the 530-bed home and a detailed, public evaluation.
Shortly after the second incident, D.C. Department of Human Services Director David Rivers announced that he had ordered Public Health Commissioner Andrew D. McBride to take direct control of the facility to straighten matters out there. And department officials said they would make recommendations on improving the operation of the nursing home.
It now has been more than seven months since Franklin's death and more than five since Spells' scalding. Rivers said, through a spokesman Tuesday that "corrective action" is being taken but declined to give any details..
That means the public still does not know what, if anything, they have done or plan to do to change the operation of the nursing home and to prevent elderly and sometimes confused residents from getting hurt. Perhaps most importantly, the department has not publicly addressed the critical issue of the level and quality of staffing.
"We're still investigating both cases," said DHS spokesman Charles Seigel this week.
"I just don't know what it's going to take to get nursing homes shaped up," Swartz said. "Is the city actually following through or is it just a lot of chest-pounding?"