Civil lawsuit alleges local firm at fault for Santa Maria woman's death

A civil jury trial started Thursday alleging a local company and its two employees caused the death of a 33-year-old woman with developmental disabilities by improperly restraining her on a bed in her Santa Maria home in 2010.

The woman’s parents, Kathleen Reed and Alexander Arcady, filed a wrongful death complaint in San Luis Obispo Superior Court against Genesis Developmental Services and caregivers Vanessa Gonzales and Cristina Camacho after their daughter, Lauren Arcady, died June 26, 2010.

They allege negligence and abuse of a dependent adult and claim her death was caused when the caregivers used an improper restraint resulting in suffocation.

A civil case is one in which an individual, business or agency of government seeks damages or relief from another individual, business or agency of government.

In court documents, the defendants countered that everything the caregivers did was to help Lauren Arcady and prevent her from hurting herself.

During opening statements Thursday, defense attorney Sean Cowdrey of Oxnard-based law firm Beach Whitman Cowdrey said the employees did not abuse Lauren Arcady, nor did they neglect her or cause her death.

Genesis Developmental Services has since changed its name to Novelles Developmental Services, Inc., according to its website, and has offices in Grover Beach and Santa Maria.

After about five years living in a state-operated facility for people with developmental disabilities in Cathedral City, Lauren Arcady moved into her own home in Santa Maria in February 2008. Two caregivers from Genesis were assigned to be with her during the day.

According to court documents, Lauren Arcady had been tentatively diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 13, suffered from seizures, was prone to self-injurious behavior, and had an I.Q. of 55, indicating mild mental retardation.

Much attention during the trial will be paid to the circumstances surrounding Lauren Arcady’s death on the afternoon of June 26, 2010, as well as what caused her death.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, James Murphy of Arroyo Grande, argued in court documents that evidence will show the caregivers — who were not CPR-certified at the time of the incident — may have used bean bags to restrain Lauren Arcady and held her chest-down on her bed even after she started calming down.

Once the caregivers realized Lauren Arcady wasn’t breathing, they called 911 but didn’t administer CPR, according to court documents.

Tests later taken by Santa Maria police determined the women had marijuana in their systems, according to the complaint. However, Genesis argued there was no evidence that the employees were impaired at the time of the incident.

For its part, Genesis states the caregivers became concerned after Lauren Arcady went into her room and slammed a door. They grabbed bean bags to protect themselves and followed, where they found Lauren Arcady beating her fists against a window, Cowdrey said in court Thursday.

They threw the bean bags down, grabbed the sleeves of her sweater, and led her to the bed, where she voluntarily sank to her knees. They became concerned when Lauren Arcady appeared to calm, and then noticed she wasn’t breathing. In one court document, Genesis states that CPR certification was not required. Gonzales had been certified but her certification had expired at the time of the incident.

Genesis claims that Lauren Arcady’s death was caused by her state of excited delirium and a combination of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications she was taking.

“A combination of medication (combined) with her agitation caused her heart to stop beating,” Cowdrey said.

In a court document filed by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office last July, an autopsy report and criminal investigation related to the incident inconclusively established the cause of death.

The coroner’s report listed the causes of death as probable cardiac arrhythmia, excited delirium (resulting from a tantrum and violent struggle with the caregivers), combined with other significant conditions of a developmental disability and multiple prescription drug ingestion, according to the district attorney’s office.

The manner of death could not be determined.

The district attorney’s office said it did not have enough evidence to hold the women criminally liable, and at that time criminal charges had not been filed. The district attorney’s office could not be reached for further comment Thursday.

The jury trial continues Friday at 11 a.m. in San Luis Obispo Superior Court Charles Crandall’s courtroom.