Lawsuit filed against nursing home where resident choked to death

Documents falsified, complaint alleges

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comJune 11, 2011 

The estate of a resident who died while she was at the Johnson Mathers Nursing Home has sued the home, alleging employees falsified documents to conceal "wrongful acts" in her 2010 choking death.

The resident, Lorrine M. Wheeler, had been at the Carlisle home for only 10 days when she was left alone while choking on food, according to the complaint filed in Nicholas Circuit Court by Juanita Wheeler, administrator of the estate. Lorrine Wheeler was on a pureed diet.

The Kentucky attorney general is reviewing a Type A citation the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Office of Inspector General issued to the nursing home on May 10 regarding the incident. The censure indicates a resident's life or safety was in danger because of violations of state regulations.

"Employees of Johnson Mathers Nursing Home intentionally falsified the nursing record ... to conceal the wrongful acts and omissions that directly led to the death of Lorrine Wheeler," the lawsuit said. It did not give details of what the record said or how it was falsified.

A nurse saw that Wheeler, identified for the first time in the lawsuit, was choking on food and the nurse could hear her "gurgling," according to both the lawsuit and the state citation.

The nurse left the resident alone and did not immediately notify other staff members, the state citation said, taking 15 to 20 minutes to clean a dirty suction machine. The facility had a lifesaving "crash" cart that was equipped with a clean suction machine.

The lawsuit said it took as much as 10 minutes for the nurse to return to the resident's room.

The nurse suctioned the resident but was unable to clear her choking, the citation said, and then notified other staff that she thought the resident was "gone."

Wheeler died at the emergency room of Johnson Mathers Hospital, which is connected by an interior corridor to Johnson Mathers Nursing Home, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit identified the nurse as Joyce Fulton. Doris Ecton, administrator at Johnson Mathers, said Thursday the nurse in the incident is no longer working at the facility.

Nathan Goldman, general council for the Kentucky Board of Nursing, said a complaint had been filed against licensed practical nurse Joyce Fulton of Ewing. However, because the license complaint is under investigation, the complaint's details are confidential, he said.

No action has been taken against Fulton's license, which is active. Fulton could not be reached for comment Friday.

John Hafner, the attorney for Juanita Wheeler, declined to comment Thursday.

Johnson Mathers was formerly owned by Johnson Mathers Healthcare but was sold to a company called Thames Healthcare in November 2010. The lawsuit is filed against JMHC Inc., formerly known as Johnson Mathers Healthcare.

Because Lorrine Wheeler died before the home's ownership change, Ecton said Thursday she could not comment on the case.

The nursing home has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Dean T. Wellman, identified in court documents as the attorney for the nursing home, did not return telephone calls Thursday.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services sends all serious citations to the Attorney General's Office of Medicaid Fraud and Abuse Control, where investigators can then decide to forward the case to local prosecutors.

Johnson Mathers also received a Type A citation in 2009 after James "Ronnie" Duncan, a mentally handicapped man, died from profuse bleeding in the brain. The citation said Duncan died after a fall, when he was put to bed by unnamed staff members for three hours without treatment for a head injury.

Shelley Johnson, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway, said Friday the Office of Medicaid Fraud and Abuse Control had reviewed the Duncan case and it is closed.

"We took it to the local prosecutor," Johnson said, referring to Commonwealth's Attorney Doug Miller. "After reviewing the case, Miller declined to prosecute."

Duncan's brother also filed a lawsuit against the nursing home.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409, or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.

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