Police Participate in Elder Abuse on Alzheimer's Patient

By: Gerri L. Elder

The family of a deceased Alzheimer's patient in Oregon has been awarded more than $900,000 in their personal injury case because of the negligent and reckless behavior of the nursing home where the woman resided.

Elvera Stephan was 86 years old in April 2006 when her husband became seriously ill and her children decided to move her into The Pearl, an Alzheimer's care center. Within a few days of being moved into The Pearl, Stephan became confused and agitated and was found wandering around the nursing home barefoot and in her pajamas. The caregivers at the home claim that she also became dangerously aggressive.

A registered nurse at the nursing home was notified of the situation and called Stephan's doctor. The doctor advised that Stephan should be taken to the hospital emergency room for an evaluation and medication, so the nurse then dialed 911 for an ambulance. While on the phone with 911, the nurse stated that Stephan was extremely aggressive, so police were also dispatched to the nursing home.

Two officers arrived at the nursing home and forced Stephan to the floor, rolled her onto her stomach and handcuffed her hands behind her back. She remained on the floor in this position for six minutes and suffered bruising on her wrists. Then Stephan was taken to the hospital, given medication and returned to the nursing home. According to a report by the Oregonian, a nurse noted the next day that Stephan was "calm and compliant" and did not remember the incident.

Six days later, Stephan's son heard about the incident from the family of another patient. Later, a state investigator found that The Pearl was at fault for failing to assess the woman's condition and intervene in a timely manner and fined the facility a token $300. Stephan's family then filed an Oregon personal injury lawsuit against Avamere, the corporate owner of The Pearl, on her behalf.

When the case went to trial, Avamere's criminal defense lawyers put expert witnesses on the stand to testify that the staff at the nursing home had followed proper procedures and were not responsible for the elder abuse Stephan suffered at the hands of the police. The criminal defense attorneys also argued that Stephan's own daughter was partially responsible for the incident because she failed to fully inform the staff about her mother's aggressive behavior and that the woman should have been on anti-psychotic medication.

The jury was shown a surveillance video of the incident. Defense lawyers then made the outrageous argument that, yes, the video looked bad but that no harm was done and there could not possibly have been a loss of dignity because Stephan didn't even remember the incident the next day.

The Oregon personal injury lawyer for Stephan's family argued that she most certainly did suffer a loss of dignity and embarrassment by being forced to the floor and handcuffed like a criminal in the facility that had become her home. The personal injury attorney quoted the facility's resident bill of rights during the trial that reads in part, "The first right is to be treated as an individual with dignity and respect."

In an 11-1 decision, the jury agreed with Stephan's family and their Oregon personal injury lawyer that just because a person suffers from memory loss or Alzheimer's disease does not mean that they are not entitled to the same kind of dignity as everyone else. The Oregon personal injury attorney for the family had asked the jury to award the family $1 million in order to send a clear message to corporations in the state that are responsible for elderly and vulnerable patients: elder abuse and reckless and negligent behavior on the part of nursing homes and caregivers can not be tolerated.

The jury found that Stephan did suffer from a loss of dignity and embarrassment at The Pearl and found that Avamere was responsible. The family of Mrs. Stephan was awarded $900,000, just a bit short of the $1 million that their personal injury lawyer has sought for them. We can only hope that the message of intolerance of elder abuse is heard loud and clear, not only by facilities and caregivers in Oregon, but everywhere else as well.

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