Family of Woman Found Dead in Hospital Stairwell Files Notice of Legal Claim with City

199388_4363.jpgThe family of a woman whose body was found in the stairwell of a San Francisco hospital weeks after she went missing from her hospital bed has filed a legal claim with the city, indicating their intention to file a lawsuit. The claim is a mandatory prerequisite to a lawsuit against city and county agencies. The family’s claim alleges medical malpractice, negligence, dangerous property conditions, and violations of the state elder abuse and adult dependency statute. Hospital workers have accused the hospital of serious understaffing, to the point that it compromises patient safety. The hospital has announced two rounds of changes to its security procedures as a result of the incident, including access controls, patient checks, and a missing patient policy.

The decedent, 57 year-old Lynn Spalding Ford, checked into San Francisco General Hospital on September 19, 2013. On September 21, a hospital worker reported her missing. The worker allegedly described Spalding, who is white, as a black woman, and some hospital paperwork described her as Asian. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department (SFSD), which handles hospital security, searched the hospital perimeter but did not classify Spalding as missing. Surveillance footage was not available to authorities until October 4. The hospital did not ask SFSD to search the entire 24-acre hospital campus until September 30, after Spalding had been missing for nine days. The search did not include all of the stairwells.

On October 4, a hospital employee reported a person lying on the 3rd- or 4th-floor stairwell of Stairwell 8. A fifth-floor employee reported hearing banging from Stairwell 8 the same day. There is no indication that anyone searched that stairwell in response to these reports. An employee with the hospital’s engineering department finally found Spalding’s body during a routine check of an exterior stairwell on October 8. Spalding had been missing for seventeen days. Both the hospital and SFSD said that the stairwell is alarmed, only exits to the first floor, and is only used as a fire exit. The medical examiner listed her cause of death as dehydration and alcoholism complications, but could not say for certain when she died.

An investigation by state and federal regulators found that the hospital and SFSD shared blame for Spalding’s death. A report by state health officials stated that hospital staff had disabled an alarm that should have sounded if Spalding tried to get out of bed, allegedly because she repeatedly triggered the alarm. The hospital assigned a monitor to her room instead, but the monitor was not there when she left her room on the fifth floor on September 21. She was last seen at 9:45 a.m. and reported missing at 10:25. SFSD changed its security procedures to include regular stairwell checks, and the hospital implemented new measures for keeping track of patients.

The complaint filed by Spalding’s family alleges medical malpractice against the hospital for failing to monitor its patient and take reasonable measures to protect her from harm. It alleges that SFSD was negligent in its role as hospital security, in part by failing to conduct an adequate search of the hospital grounds. It also alleges that the defendants failed to protect Spalding from dangerous conditions on public property. The family is seeking unspecified damages in an amount greater than $25,000.

Lebowitz & Mzhen’s personal injury attorneys help people in the Washington, DC area recover their just compensation when they have suffered injuries because of negligence or tortious conduct. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

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