Ongoing safety issues at Western State Hospital

Over the last few months, injuries and deaths at Western State Hospital in Lakewood have been in the news. In April, there was both a murder and a suicide perpetrated by patients civilly committed in the hospital. One patient was murdered after he allegedly urinated on another sleeping patient. A fight ensued in which one patient stabbed the other patient in the ear with a pen and strangled him to death. The following day, another patient, a 20-year-old woman, committed suicide by hanging herself from her doorknob.

Today, the Seattle PI reported yet another attempted murder in the hospital. A patient is accused of attacking another patient with a metal lock in a sock and has been charged in Tacoma with assault and attempted murder. The patient pleaded guilty to fourth degree assault in April for an unrelated attack on another patient in the hospital.

After the two deaths in April, the national hospital accrediting group known as the Joint Commission started looking into safety at Western State. The Joint Commission highlighted a dozen ways in which Western has failed to meet national standards for keeping hospital patients safe from harm, including understaffing, failures to monitor patients properly, and unsafe doors. With too few nurses and psychiatrists working each shift, patients were able to harm themselves and others unseen. As far back as 2010 Western State officials had determined that hundreds of door handles and closing mechanisms above each door could be used by patients to hang themselves. The hospital began replacing door handles in October 2011, but hundreds of the old handles were still in place this spring, allowing the young woman to hang herself from her door in April.

Staff members at Western State are also at risk. Three employees of the hospital were attacked by a patient in early May requiring medical care in the emergency room. Last July a patient, unprovoked, assaulted another staff member, hitting and kicking him. Another staff member was injured in the ensuing struggle to calm the patient. Western State is the largest mental hospital west of the Mississippi River with 806 beds and is Washington’s most violent workplace: 335 assaults were reported there in the 12 months preceding the May incident

Patients of the hospital, whether voluntarily or involuntarily committed, and staff members may be entitled to recovery for injuries they sustain at the hospital. There is a heightened duty of care that hospitals owe to their patients, and where the hospital fails to keep patients safe from themselves and others, the patients and their families likely have claims.