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SLO nursing home patient 'engulfed in flames' after he was left to smoke, lawsuit says

Jeffrey Lewelling recovering at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital's burn unit last year after he was severely burned at a San Luis Obispo assisted living and rehab facility, where staff allegedly left him unsupervised during a cigarette break, according to a lawsuit.
Jeffrey Lewelling recovering at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital's burn unit last year after he was severely burned at a San Luis Obispo assisted living and rehab facility, where staff allegedly left him unsupervised during a cigarette break, according to a lawsuit.

The father of a 55-year-old mentally impaired man living at a nursing home in San Luis Obispo alleges that staff there negligently gave the partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound man a cigarette and lighter shortly before he was found in a patio area "engulfed in flames."

A lawsuit filed this week in San Luis Obispo Superior Court by Atascadero resident Floyd Lewelling, on behalf of his son Jeffrey Lewelling, says that staff at Mission View Health Center should not have given the man his own lighter nor left him alone in the designated smoking area.

The Lewelling family seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages for dependent adult abuse and neglect, negligence and violations of resident rights.

Lawsuits only represent one side of the story, and Compass Health, Inc., which owns and operates Mission View, has not yet filed a response in court.

In an email statement last week, Compass Health Vice President Angela Hopkins wrote: "Mr. Lewelling has been with us since 2009 and remains under our care. He has been an active smoker and suffered this unfortunate injury while smoking. While we take the safety of our residents very seriously, this must be done while balancing the resident’s desire to be independent and continue with their lifelong habits.

"We are disappointed to find out we have lost the trust of a resident and their family who currently resides in one of our facilities, but will appropriately defend this matter."

The Lewellings' Thousand Oaks-based attorney, Gregory Johnson, said Mission View staff had a duty to provide Lewelling with a fire-retardant gown, take the lighter or supervise him while he smoked.

"The majority of cases we handle involve mistakes that people make; there's a medical component, some level of skill," Johnson said. "This case strikes me as just basic common sense."

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Jeffrey Lewelling, left, with family in an undated photo. Floyd Lewelling

According to Lewelling's father, Jeffrey Lewelling has been in assisted living care since suffering severe injuries in 2004, when he was hit by a vehicle while riding his bike. The crash left Lewelling permanently paralyzed on his left side and mentally impaired from brain trauma. Lewelling spent more than a month in a brain-trauma unit after the crash, Floyd said.

Jeff Lewelling was also a longtime cigarette smoker, and as a resident of Mission View was allowed to smoke one cigarette per hour in the designated smoking area of the facility. However, for his and others' safety, he was not permitted to have his own matches or lighter. Staff at the facility would instead light Lewelling's cigarette for him.

On Nov. 6, 2017, the lawsuit states, an unidentified Mission View staff member gave Lewelling his own lighter, and he began smoking a cigarette, unsupervised, in the designated area.

The lawsuit says that Lewelling somehow caught fire on his left side and "became engulfed in flames." Staff heard his screams and ran outside, pulled his clothes off him and threw a sheet over him to put out the flames, it reads.

He suffered third-degree burns over his left side and back and was hospitalized in the burn center at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital for nearly a month, where he underwent three skin graft surgeries, the lawsuit says.

The complaint states that Lewelling continues to suffer excruciating pain and mental anguish as a result of his burns.

"He will never fully recover from the burns and is permanently and unrecognizably scarred," the complaint says, noting he will require medical care for the rest of his life.

Though Lewelling's lawsuit claims Mission View has since begun making patients wear fire-retardant gowns when they smoke, Hopkins wrote in a follow-up email that the lawsuit is "erroneous in its assumption that we have only recently provided such articles."

"Mission View has always, including at the time of the incident, provided and made available in the designated smoking areas fire retardant smoker’s blankets and fire extinguishers," Hopkins wrote.

Floyd Lewelling said Tuesday that his son has since quit smoking.

A case management conference has been scheduled for Aug. 21 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1
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