Family sues Atascadero State Hospital over patient's death

Atascadero State Hospital
Atascadero State Hospital

The family of an Atascadero State Hospital patient allegedly strangled by his roommate is suing the hospital for wrongful death, saying staff there knew the roommate had been violent and threatening toward other patients and should have segregated him from the general population.

The lawsuit was filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court this week on behalf of Linda Turner, of Tacoma, Washington, and Mary Lowry, of Las Vegas. They are, respectively, the mother and sister of Kevin Turner, 53, who was killed on May 28, 2014.

According to police reports, a psychiatrist at the hospital found Adam Cary, 35, on top of the victim in a dorm, with the victim’s face in his own pillow. Cary, who is 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, was strangling the victim, the psychiatrist reported.

Cary, who allegedly admitted to the killing immediately afterward, has pleaded not guilty. Criminal proceedings in Cary’s case, however, were put on hold after he was declared incompetent to stand trial.

Cary, who has convictions for attempted rape and assault, had allegedly been experiencing religious and sexual delusions. Turner, who had been at ASH for more than 10 years, had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, burglary and petty theft.

According to the civil complaint, filed by Santa Monica attorney David Feldman, several patients on Cary’s unit had complained to the staff that Cary was being violent and threatening.

“Cary was a known dangerous patient with aggressive and violent tendencies towards others, including decedent,” the suit reads. “The staff members had enough warning signals and time to intervene, but they did not.”

Because the staff failed to properly assess Cary, the suit adds, he was placed in the wrong environment.

Claims made in civil complaints are one-sided and have not yet been argued in court.

Feldman declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for the Department of State Hospitals, which oversees all the state hospitals — and which is also named as a defendant in the suit — did not respond to emailed questions before press time.

Last June, Ken August, a spokesman for the Department of State Hospitals, said patients were not roomed together based on past violent acts.

“Patient assignment to a room depends on assessment of the patient’s clinical needs, both medical and psychological,” he told The Tribune.

Since Turner’s death, one piece of legislation changed that rule. AB 1960, which was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, allows state hospital staffs to place patients with the most serious and violent behaviors in special treatment programs based on their past crimes and aggressive histories. At the time of the alleged strangulation, ASH ran a pilot program, called the Enhanced Treatment Program, that did just that.

While Cary should have qualified for the Enhanced Treatment Program, the suit states, he was not placed in it.

The enhanced treatment programs, according to the new law, would allow staff to place the most violent patients in enhanced treatment programs in individual rooms with locking doors, away from the general patient populations.

The lawsuit also claims that ASH was understaffed and that the defendants “knew the level of care was deficient, they knew that the staff was overworked and undertrained, that suicidal patients were not being assessed properly, that the staff was not properly trained to intervene to prevent patient-on-patient assaults and that these failures would result and were resulting in physical harm to the patients, and nonetheless, they chose not to do anything.”

Ten years ago, staffing at ASH became an issue when the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations reported that mandated overtime and insufficient staff threatened the health of patients and safety of workers, according to a 2005 Tribune story. Meanwhile, federal regulations that took effect in 2006 restricted when and how often ASH employees could use medications, seclusion and restraints to calm patients on the spot, a rule that staffers said was followed by increased violence.

Before Turner’s death, the suit states, he visited and spoke with his family on a weekly basis.

Cary, who has been declared incompetent to stand trial numerous times in the past, is scheduled to appear in court May 6, when an update on his mental status will be given. His criminal case will only resume if it is determined that he understands the charges against him and can assist in his defense.

His most recent hospitalization stemmed from a 2012 incident during which he threw a hammer at his brother and vandalized his mother’s car. After initially being sent to prison, he was transferred to ASH in March 2014 for delusional behavior, according to the district attorney’s office.

The last patient-on-patient killing at ASH occurred in 2008, when 44-year-old Richard McKee strangled Lawrence Rael, 37. According to court testimony, McKee had made threats prior to killing Rael, who was found dead in his bed.

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