D.C. is liable for the death of a man with profound disabilities

Harvey v. District of Columbia, No. 13-7082 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 18, 2015).

The chapel in the now-abandoned Forest Haven, an institution that used to house people with disabilities. Forest Haven was closed in 1991 and its residents dispersed to group homes. Curtis Suggs, whose death is the subject of this lawsuit, lived in Forest Haven until 1984. (Credit: Will Fisher / flickr.)

The chapel in the now-abandoned Forest Haven, an institution that used to house people with disabilities. Forest Haven was closed in 1991 and its residents dispersed to group homes. Curtis Suggs, whose death is the subject of this lawsuit, lived in Forest Haven until 1984. (Credit: Will Fisher / flickr.)

Curtis Suggs, a man with serious cognitive disabilities, lived in a group home operated by a private company. This company, Symbral, had a contract with the District of Columbia to operate the home and provide care to Suggs and the home’s other residents. The District of Columbia, however, remained legally responsible for Suggs. 

In 1995, Suggs began to lose motor function. He was no longer able to feed himself. In 1997, doctors diagnosed Suggs with spinal stenosis and recommended a laminectomy, a procedure that removes part of the vertebral bone. Suggs never received the procedure, and he soon became unable to chew his food or walk. He suffered from bed sores, dehydration, and frequent incontinence. Eventually his diaphragm became paralyzed, leaving him unable to breathe. He died in 2000. 

The personal representative of Suggs’s estate brought suit against the District of Columbia, asserting negligence and violations of Suggs’s due process rights. At trial, a jury found the District liable and awarded $2.9 million in damages. Suggs’s attorneys were later awarded over $1 million in fees and costs. 

The District now appeals, and the D.C. Circuit affirms on liability. The jury, looking at the evidence, reasonably concluded that the District was deliberately indifferent to Suggs’s medical needs. In fact, around the time of Suggs’s death, the District admitted that its administration of care to people with developmental disabilities was “highly dysfunctional” and “seriously broken.” 

The D.C. Circuit reverses the damages award, however, because the district court should have allowed the District to cross-examine the other side’s experts about whether Suggs’s pre-existing medical conditions contributed to his decline and to present evidence that Suggs’s sister refused to consent to the laminectomy. That evidence could have allowed the jury to lower damages by the amount attributable to pre-existing conditions, or exonerate the District for any damages incurred after the sister refused to consent to the laminectomy. And the district court shouldn’t have instructed the jury that the District had a lien against Suggs’s estate, because that created a risk that the jury would overcompensate the estate in order to “offset” the lien. So the case is remanded for new proceedings on damages.