Wrongful Death Suit Against Safe Harbor Facility Proceeds

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ricardo_abrahams.jpgYolo County Superior Court Judge David Reed allowed the case by the family of Ricardo Abrahams against Yolo Community Care Continuum to proceed despite strong arguments by attorney Ronald Enabnit who argued that death was not a foreseeable consequence of calling the police.

Judge Reed ruled that the duty of care ends with discharge and that there is a factual dispute as to when discharge occurred that needs to be determined along with other questions of fact during trial rather than during demure.

Ricardo Abrahams died on May 28, 2008 as the result of positional asphyxiation stemming from events that occurred when he encountered police and an incident occurred leading to Tasers, batons, and the eventual dog-piling by officers in order to subdue him.  The family has already settled their suit against the Woodland Police for a $300,000 settlement however, the suit against Safe Harbor and against Taser International continue.  Under the agreement there was no acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the city of Woodland or its four officers involved in the incident.

Mr. Abrahams had checked into the facility upon the urging of his family due to a condition where he was increasingly disoriented, stresed, and uncommunicative.   However, he became more so upon admittance and eventually left the facility distraught.  Alarmed the facility called the police and a confrontation ensued that ended in his death.

At the time of the settlement Attorney Johnny L. Griffin told the Vanguard:

“The case is moving forward against the other defendants.  The settlement with the City was very appropriate based on the confirmed  totality of facts and circumstances.”

The lawsuit claims in part:

“Safe Harbor staff knew that Ricardo’s stress and anxiety, combined with his difficulty communicating and following instructions, would likely lead to a confrontation between Ricardo and police.”

Moreover, the facility failed to contact Abrahams’ parents or an individual experienced in mental health crisis intervention to reduce his stress.

However, last Thursday Mr. Enabnit began to tear into those claims.  He claimed that the Plaintiffs wrongly try to use a Theory of Liability that argues that when the police were called, Safe Harbor had additional duties to provide more information to the police or take other actions.  Plaintiffs cite the Tarasoff case in establishing a duty to notify third parties when there is a reasonable belief of criminal intent.  Defense countered that this was opposite of the case in Abrahams because he was not seen as dangerous.

Defense instead asked that the law be analyzed under Roland v. Christian standards which posit a five part test for liability.  They argue that the there is no foreseeability as it was not foreseeable that calling the police would lead to the death of Mr. Abrahams.  Moreover they argue that given the fact that Mr. Abrahams had left the facility and his condition it was reasonable to call the police.  They argued that as a non-profit, there was no moral blame as they operated in what they believed was the best interest of their patients.

Furthermore the defense argued that it would place a huge burden on the defendant if it determined that it had additional legal duties.  First, it would be a financial burden.  Second, it would have a negative consequences on the community as it makes it more difficult and expensive for such non-profits to operate.

Finally they tore into plaintiff claims that the parents should have been called, arguing that at that point when he was confused and noncommunicative it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had been called.  Second, they argued that the facility itself was an expert in mental health and therefore there was no need to call in a third party expert.  Finally, claims that the police are not trained to deal with mental health crises were refuted arguing extensive training and that calling the police was the only duty that they had during such a crisis.

The plaintiffs countered that up until the point of discharge, the facility had a duty of care and that he was never discharged.  They argued that the facility had a duty to perform a number of tasks in order to insure that Mr. Abrahams had ordinary reasonable care.  Specifically they claimed that they never notified the police that he was not a danger to himself or others.  Second, they did not notify police that there were mental health professionals with crisis training in the vicinity that could have been of assistance. 

Third, they argued that the Woodland Police Department is too fast to resort to violence with mental health patients, especially those that are unresponsive such as Abrahams.  Thus violence is foreseeable and not out of the ordinary. 

They disputed the applicability of Terasoff arguing that it should apply since the issue is what one must do when trying to control a third party.  given the foreseeability of harm there is a duty to exercise reasonable care.

Finally they argued that they would not be telling the police how to do their job, rather that there were certain risks and facts that the police should have known to enable them to perform their job better in this case.  It was their duty to inform the police when they know information and the police does not have that information.

Yolo Community Care Continuum maintains that they did nothing wrong in this incident and hoped that the litigation could be stopped as soon as possible.  Christine Scobee, the YCCC board president told the Woodland Daily Democrat last week:

“I’m confident the judge will dismiss the charges against the YCCC, but it’s a multi-step process. As far as I know we did everything right and nothing wrong.”

The question of whether this case will be dismissed will be determined whether or not there issues of triable facts that emerge.  According to the law, if there is an issue of evidence that is controverted by other evidence, it becomes a triable issue of fact and therefore must be dealt with in trial rather than a motion to dismiss.  However, this case may way more on the reasonableness of whether Safe Harbor had a continued duty after Abrahams left rather than any factual dispute.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Rima Kalush contributed to this story

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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One thought on “Wrongful Death Suit Against Safe Harbor Facility Proceeds”

  1. eagle eye

    The obvious reason Safe Harbor called the police was Safe Harbor’s hope that the patient would be forced to return to Safe Harbor and Safe Harbor would keep another “bed” full, helping to keep Safe Harbor financially afloat.
    YCCC has a history of abusing its patients: Dropping Farmhouse patients off downtown without any supervision and no means to contact staff if an emergency occurs, even though its contract requires constant 24 hour supervision at all times; making Farmhouse clients sleep on the floor because YCCC didn’t want to spend money to buy a bed; placing patients on a sleep deprivation program; overmedicating patients to the point they couldn’t walk; refusing patients the right to make and receive phone calls and to have reasonable visits; submitting bogus billing claims to clients and the county; ridiculing clients; hiring unqualified staff; born-again religious instruction.

    Marie does her best at Farmhouse, but it used to be totally unsafe with dangerous objects abounding, the septic field overflowing, bathroom not working, lack of staff, and no program for patients even at a cost of $175 per day per patient.

    It’s a wonder YCCC skated on the brink of disaster for so long with
    out a major lawsuit.

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