Virginia Family sues over mental hospital's treatment

By Dena Potter

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- The family of a man who spent more than 15 years in seclusion at a Virginia psychiatric hospital is suing the facility, several physicians and the state, claiming he was unconstitutionally kept in segregation and denied adequate medical care before his death in 2009.

Cesar Chumil, 59, died of complications from colon cancer weeks after being transferred to a northern Virginia mental hospital in October 2009. His family had fought for years to get him transferred from Western State Hospital in Staunton, where he spent more than a decade locked inside a specially built three-room dormitory-style suite because staff said he was too unpredictably violent to live among the other patients.

Clara Ramos, Chumil's sister, filed the lawsuit on behalf of his estate in Charlottesville Circuit Court last fall, but papers were not served until this month.

The family argues that Chumil's treatment team violated his rights by holding him in seclusion for so long, failed to provide adequate psychiatric care in his own language and failed to provide medical care, including preventive screening and diagnosis of the cancer that killed him.

"I just believe that keeping a man in isolation for close to 20 years, there can't be any clinical basis for that and it doesn't meet the standard of care," said Nathan Veldhuis, one of the family's attorneys. "I think that he was isolated. I think that he was neglected."

The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services oversees the hospital. Department spokeswoman Meghan McGuire said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Chumil, a Guatemalan native, moved to the U.S. in 1980 and after several psychiatric hospital stays, was moved to Western State Hospital in 1986. He averaged 300 assaults against staff and another 100 against patients over each of the next seven years while he was housed with other residents, according to records obtained by the AP.

To limit the amount of time he was spending in restraints or in a small seclusion cell because of the violent outbursts, hospital officials in 1993 built the three-room "limited containment suite," which had a separate bathroom, living area and a small outdoor area. He remained separated from the other patients, his meals pushed through a slot in a solid door that remained locked.

Chumil's family liked the idea in the beginning because Chumil had more freedom, but in 2007 filed a complaint because they said Chumil was not getting treatment in his native Spanish and had no hopes of ever leaving the isolation room. His communication skills were further limited, his attorneys argue, when his teeth were removed in 2005 because they had rotted. Chumil was never given dentures.

Chumil's family had been allowed to take him to Wal-Mart, the local mall and restaurants dozens of times without hospital staff, but he was placed back in seclusion when he returned to the hospital.

In 2008, a state oversight committee ordered Chumil removed from seclusion, so the hospital moved all other patients off his ward and unlocked the door to his suite so he could go out into the day room. He remained alone, except for staff, until he was transferred to Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute on Sept. 30, 2009. He died weeks later.

The family seeks more than $100,000 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The lawsuit names six members of Chumil's treatment team, Western State Hospital and the commonwealth of Virginia. The lawsuit was first reported by The News Leader.

The state and its institutions are largely protected from civil lawsuits by "sovereign immunity" -- a doctrine rooted in a monarchical tradition that allowed grievances against the king only with his permission. If attorneys cannot prove those named were grossly negligent, state law limits awards to $100,000.

Published: Thu, Jul 26, 2012