The District government, accused in court of causing the deaths of two residents at D.C. Village, has filed claims against the estates of the indigent elderly victims for hundreds of thousands of dollars the city now says it is owed for the free care they received at the city-run nursing home.
Lawyers for the families of the two dead patients said the city is using the counterclaims as a tactic to get them to drop their multimillion-dollar negligence suits against the District or to recapture all or part of any award made to the families if the city is found liable.
"They are saying they can kill people as long as they are on public assistance," said Dean Swartz, attorney for the sister of George Austin Spells, a severely incapacitated 71-year-old who died last year from burns from a scalding bath at D.C. Village. "Why don't they just give the nurses syringes to go off and kill people? . . . From a public policy point of view it's horrifying."
Attorneys for the city said the District files a claim for reimbursement whenever an estate of a Medicaid recipient might have substantial assets, regardless of the source. It is a coincidence that in these cases the assets to cover the city's claim would come from a negligence award from the city itself, they said.
The two patients had virtually no assets when they died at D.C. Village, but if the negligence suits are won, the awards would go into their estates.
D.C. City Council staff aides said a 1984 District law cited by the city's attorneys as justification for filing the claim was intended to enable the District to collect when a recipient of public assistance was seeking an award from a third party, such as an insurance company, and not to offset negligence claims against itself.
The families' attorneys charged the city is trying to bully them into dropping the lawsuits or accepting low settlements.
"What they are saying is that because of the existence of these liens [against the estate for care], they can cause the person's death and not be held accountable for it," said L.C. Wright Jr., attorney for the son of Wilhelmina Franklin, an 86-year-old resident who was found frozen to death next to her tipped-over wheelchair on the facility grounds in January 1985.
"They hope to make it a wash," he concluded.
An internal D.C. Department of Human Services investigation of the Franklin accident, completed last February, concluded that "there was gross negligence and careless work performance on the part of the nursing staff and security staff that was on duty at the time of the incident."
The city has filed a claim against Franklin's estate for $137,278 in care for medical expenses incurred from 1980 until her death.
Spells died on April 1 of burns he received trying to bathe himself after wheeling himself past a nurses' station and into an open bathing area.
City officials acknowledged that the water at the facility was too hot, exceeding temperature maximums set by law to avoid such accidents at public facilities, but they said they had posted warning signs about the hot water in the bathrooms. Spells, a mentally incapacitated stroke victim, had tried before to bathe himself, nursing home records show.
The city last month filed a court claim against his estate for $203,258 for his care at D.C. Village and Glenn Dale Hospital, where he had lived before going to the nursing home.
Shaun Pharr, attorney for the D.C. Department of Human Services, said the city files claims for reimbursement when a Medicaid recipient's survivors open an estate to receive assets if, for example, there is a life insurance policy. The city has the discretion to waive claims, and it is left to the D.C. corporation counsel to recover any claims, he said.
D.C. Village, the city's public nursing home, is across the Anacostia River in the southern tip of the District and serves hundreds of indigent, elderly patients.
Franklin had wandered outside in her wheelchair wearing only light clothing, and an investigation of the incident showed that D.C. Village employes did not start searching for her until hours after she was first discovered missing from her room during a bed check. The staff concentrated their search inside, and city officials explained later that the staff did not believe she would go outside in the cold.
An internal investigation later revealed that Franklin had a well-known "history of going outside," and one security guard told investigators he had brought Franklin in from the cold on several occasions.
Franklin's son, Willie M. Franklin, has sued the city for $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Spells' sister, Katheryn Spells Jackson, has sued the city for $4 million and recently asked to amend that complaint to seek $10 million in punitive damages on two charges.
Negligence claims, particularly those involving elderly people, are often settled out of court for considerably less than the original suits seek, according to attorneys.
"I know they were negligent. They know they were negligent, but they are not coming up with anything" in the way of a proposed settlement, said Wright, the attorney for Franklin's son.