Owner of Atascadero nursing home sued over employee's death

A nursing home employee in charge of destroying expired drugs gave morphine to a co-worker, who later overdosed and died, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the dead woman’s three children.

The suit was filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court last week against Pacific Christian Senior Services, which owns Atascadero Christian Community. According to the complaint, the employee “improperly provided large quantities of morphine to decedent Michelle Hughes, who died of an overdose.”

Claims made in civil complaints only represent one side and have not yet been adjudicated in court. The Tribune sent an email to the employee and Pacific Christian’s chief executive officer, Dan Busby, seeking reaction to the suit, but Busby said the company could not comment because it has not yet been served with a lawsuit.

While the suit names the employee as the morphine provider, she is not a defendant in the civil suit.

According to the Atascadero Police Department and the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, there are no active investigations or criminal charges pending in the matter. As a result, The Tribune is not naming the employee.

“This is fully the responsibility of the facility,” said Richard Kellner, a Los Angeles attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Ashley, Justin and Marcie Hughes, whose mother died in Glendora on April 19, 2014, according to a report from the Glendora Police Department.

Hughes, who was a cousin of the employee, had worked at Atascadero Christian Community for 10 years as a dietary supervisor, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the employee was tasked to maintain, distribute and dispose of expired narcotic drugs from the Atascadero facility.

“Upon information and belief,” the complaint continues, “instead of destroying the expired narcotic drugs (under verifiable protocols), she distributed the narcotic drugs without prescription or medical supervision.”

In April 2014, the suit claims, Hughes was 48 and suffering from a painful neurological disease. On her Facebook page in March 2014, Hughes wrote about her pain.

“Today is the day I throw in the white towel,” she wrote.

After paying a doctor $420 to help with her back pain, she wrote, she was sent to a physical therapist, who told Hughes her insurance would not cover the $168 visit.

“So how do I work?” Hughes wrote. “How do I sit? How do I drive? And all they say is take Tylenol.”

She added in capital letters, “I HATE MY F------ LIFE RIGHT NOW.”

“She was suffering from incredible pain,” Kellner said.

According to the suit, the employee either gave Hughes expired morphine she was supposed to destroy, or she substituted the expired morphine for non-expired morphine intended for patients.

On April 19, Hughes was found dead in a Glendora residence, according to the report by the Glendora Police Department.

Kellner did not know why Hughes, whose hometown is listed as Paso Robles, was in Glendora. Details from the Glendora police on the official cause of death, along with a more detailed police report explaining why Hughes died in Glendora, were not available Wednesday.

Kellner said Hughes’ three children were in their late teens and early 20s at the time of her death. One of them, he added, is a special-needs child who relied on his mother for help.

According to the police report, Hughes had a medical history of depression, anxiety, hypothyroidism, asthma, back problems and opiate abuse.

The lawsuit claims Atascadero Christian Community is liable because it failed to supervise the employee during the destruction of narcotics and failed to maintain logs, as required by federal law.

“As a result, (the employee) was able to distribute narcotic drugs (such as morphine) to individuals who were not seniors or patients at the Atascadero facility — without the supervision of doctors or any other qualified medical professional,” the suit states.

Kellner’s Los Angeles law firm, Kabateck Brown Kellner LLP, handles major class-action and tort lawsuits — including a well-publicized $400 million class action suit it handled against Epson, which makes printers and ink cartridges.

Pacific Christian Senior Services operates two senior facilities in Atascadero — Atascadero Christian Community and the Country Care Health Center.