Abuse, neglect cited in wrongful death case

Staff reports

LAKE CHARLES – A 12-person jury in the 14th Judicial District Court found a school for the disabled liable Jan. 22 in the suffering and death of a mentally-handicapped man, awarding $7.5 million to the man’s mother.

Andre Gauthier, of the Gonzales law firm Gauthier and Amedee, was lead counsel in the case against Robinswood School for the Developmentally Disabled, owned by Multi-Care, Inc.

Tony Courville, a 39-year-old man with the mental aptitude of a 1-4 year-old, was a resident for 15 years at Robinswood, which is one of the largest private facilities for individuals with severe and profound mental retardation in Louisiana. It houses 120 patients who can no longer live at home or on their own. The facility is licensed through the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Beginning June 5 and June 6, 2005, the Courville family noticed that the man was coughing, and notified the facility, Gauthier said. Courville was eventually brought to a hospital June 14 with pneumonia, he said.

Medical record indicated that Courville’s chest was filled with fluid, and that his trachea and heart had been shoved over, according to Gauthier. His heart was pushed by the fluid against his rib cage, he said.

Dr. Gary Kohler, a pulmonologist, testified that the fluid “gushed” out of Courville’s chest after a tube was inserted to drain the fluid, Gauthier said. More than 4.5 liters of fluid was drained.

Gauthier said records indicated that Robinswood permitted Courville to gain 41 pounds over a 14-day period.

In examining Courville’s medical records, Gauthier said psychiatric records indicated that Courville had been involved in apparent sexual activity, despite his mental capacity.

In one instance, the sexual activity was so severe that Courville complained to a psychiatrist that his lips and tongue were sore, Gauthier said.

Sexual abuse must be reported to DHH by law, but the facility never reported the incidents, the attorney said.

All incidents of sexual abuse must be investigated by the facility and an investigative report retained in the patient’s permanent file, according to the law. Gauthier said the facility did no possess any investigation of the incidents, and DHH was not notified.

According to Gauthier, Courville was attacked multiple times over the years and brought to the hospital on many occasions for staples to be placed in his head.

“As a matter of fact, the week before he died, he had to have seven staples removed from the top of his head,” Gauthier said.

Record substantiated that Courville had suffered unprotected seizures, was hit, bit, slapped, punched, attacked or kicked more than 200 times, he said. On one occasion, someone apparently put a lit cigarette to his body.

Records also indicated that Courville was allowed to use tobacco despite his mental capacity. Lake Charles Memorial Hospital record showed that he had been brought there numerous times for serious head lacerations, and forms indicated that he was a cigarette smoker. Courville’s mother was unaware that Robinswood allowed her son to smoke, Gauthier said.

Co-counsel Jody Amedee said the law states that such facilities must keep patient records for three years after the death of the resident, but only retained about 33 percent of Courville’s records.

When questioned about the remainder of the records, no one from the facility would confess where they were or if they had been destroyed, Amedee said.

The attorneys argued that the facility had buried Courville’s record to bury their content.

The jury awarded Courville’s mother, 84-year-old Berna Courville, $7.5 million dollars, but the verdict will exceed $9.5 million once judicial interest and costs are factored into it.

Gauthier said the case has been pending for nearly five years.