TACOMA — Four Western State Hospital employees who recently received more than $2 million in damages from the state for its failure to prevent repeated gender-based attacks by a patient filed another lawsuit this month alleging officials withheld internal hospital investigations of their assaults until their trial was underway.
An attorney for the employees told The News Tribune the handling of the reports is an indication that hospital officials haven’t properly addressed staff safety concerns.
The state has not submitted a response to the most recent lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 16 in Pierce County Superior Court.
“We’re currently reviewing the complaint as well as the records requests that have been identified,” a spokesperson wrote in an email statement.
For years, patient attacks on staff and other patients have plagued Washington’s two state adult mental hospitals, which continue to struggle with low staffing and a critical lack of psychiatric beds. A September violence reduction report to the state Legislature showed Western State staff assault rates in 2021 decreased to their lowest level since 2017, with a total of 1,165 assaults reported on staff and other patients.
The four hospital employees first sued the state Department of Social and Health Services in Pierce County in 2019 after a patient attacked and injured each of them under similar circumstances within six months in 2018, according to court documents. The state didn’t disclose internal probes of the assaults in response to public records requests specifically asking for them or during discovery for the civil case. A senior official also told the attorneys during depositions that only the police investigated the incidents.
The revelation about the internal hospital investigations came just prior to trial this April when the employees’ attorneys were questioning a former DSHS risk management investigator, according to court documents. He had written a report about measures to enclose the hospital’s nurses’ stations — a site of one of the attacks — in 2013.
During the conversation, the investigator asked the attorneys if they had received the reports he authored about the 2018 attacks.
“Either (DSHS officials) knew that all these reports existed,” attorney James Beck told The News Tribune, “and they deliberately violated the Public Records Act.
“Or they didn’t even know they existed.”
If the latter is true, Beck said, it would fly in the face of DSHS’s purported efforts to reduce violence within state mental hospitals, such as its agreement with the state Department of Labor and Industries to hire staff to investigate assaults and propose prevention strategies, and its annual reports to the state Legislature.
The labor department pays claims to injured workers and has repeatedly fined Western State for safety violations.
Beck said the DSHS annual reports to the Legislature incorrectly “make it sound like they’re doing a superb, great job.”
In April, Beck and his team asked for a hearing about the undisclosed investigative reports, and state officials produced them during the first week of trial, according to court documents.
A jury determined each of the employees — all women who had their hair pulled violently during their attacks — was targeted based on gender and that hospital officials failed to take action to protect them, according to court documents. The employees received nearly $2.1 million in damages and $2.6 million in attorney fees.
In their new lawsuit, the employees asked to be awarded sanctions against DSHS for violating the state Public Records Act and for an order that state officials explain why the investigations weren’t disclosed.
Beck pointed to the case of a Western State patient who was strangled to death by his roommate on Oct. 28 as part of “the same plague.”
“It’s been a disaster zone for a long time,” Beck said. “And until they make it a true priority and not just political rhetoric, it’s going to continue.”
2018 Western State employee attack investigations
The 33-year-old patient at the center of the underlying attacks had been admitted to Western State twice before, and his third stay that began in December 2017 was related to a third-degree assault charge and a failure to register as a sex offender, according to court documents. He had multiple diagnoses of mental health disorders and officials had him civilly committed to Western State.
Court papers show Western State staff documented the patient repeatedly pulling the hair of female employees.
The first of the four employees suing the state was attacked by the patient on March 26, 2018, according to the hospital investigation included in court documents.
The patient was pacing back and forth prior to the attack, and he asked staff for medication to help with his agitation, according to the investigation. While staff were fulfilling his request, the patient decided to go into his room instead.
A few minutes later, the patient came back out into the hall and sprinted toward a female employee who was talking with another staff member. The patient grabbed the employee by her hair, pulled her to the ground and wrapped her hair around her neck to choke her.
Three staff members helped free the employee, and one drove her to the hospital, according to the investigation.
An unsigned section of the investigative report recommended additional self-defense training and talking with staff about choosing hairstyles that would be more difficult to grab, among other measures.
Four days later, on March 30, the patient was waiting for medication to help with agitation when he jumped on a female employee, grabbed her hair on either side and pulled her to the ground, according to an investigative report included in court documents. The patient cursed at the employee and threatened to kill her, then told another employee that she was next.
The investigative report noted the similarities with the attack four days earlier and said the patient’s treatment plan wasn’t adjusted in the meantime.
The patient also hadn’t been taking his medication properly, and staff reported he had delusions about possessing women’s hair. He also asked about women’s wigs.
The hospital safety manager recommended adjusting his treatment plan and providing additional training for staff, according to the investigative report.
In July, the same patient attacked another employee in a hallway, according to an investigative report included in court documents. While an employee was checking patient rooms, she said the man twice gave her an angry look. He had previously been agitated by a fire alarm but staff reported he seemed better after taking medication.
When the patient got within about 15 feet of her, the employee said he started running and slammed her into the floor, according to the investigation. He then tried to bite her thigh while she was on the ground.
The hospital safety manager again recommended adjusting his treatment plan and providing additional training for staff, according to the investigative report.
The last of the four attacks, and the only one to result in criminal charges, was on Sept. 30, according to an investigative report included in court documents.
Staff were bringing the patient to his bedroom in order to calm him down, and an employee at the nurse’s station 30 feet away yelled at him to follow their directions, according to the investigation.
The patient continued to resist staff, then suddenly ran toward the nurse’s station and jumped over the plexiglass barrier. From there, he shoved the employee inside to the ground, bit off part of her ear lobe and choked her.
An ambulance transported the employee to the hospital, and two more staff members were injured in the ensuing struggle, according to the investigation.
The hospital safety manager recommended a medication review for the patient, increased staffing in his unit and additional training, according to the investigation.
An assault charge against the patient was dismissed due to his lack of mental competency, according to court records.
In the 90 days prior the Sept. 30 attack, the patient had been involved in four patient and 11 staff assaults.