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Harper v. Hudspeth Regional Center

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

August 21, 2018

THEOPOLOIS HARPER, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL THE HEIRS AT LAW AND WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES OF LAURA TINE HARPER, DECEASED APPELLANT
v.
HUDSPETH REGIONAL CENTER AND MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH APPELLEES

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 01/13/2017

          COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. JOHN HUEY EMFINGER RANKIN JUDGE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: DAVID L. VALENTINE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: STUART ROBINSON JR. RICHARD T. CONRAD III

          BEFORE GRIFFIS, P.J., FAIR AND TINDELL, JJ.

          TINDELL, JUDGE

         ¶1. Laura Harper died while in the care of Hudspeth Regional Center. Following Laura's death, her brother, Theopolois Harper, individually and on behalf of Laura's heirs-at-law and wrongful-death beneficiaries, sued Hudspeth[1] and the Mississippi Department of Mental Health (collectively, the Appellees) under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.[2] After conducting a bench trial, the Rankin County Circuit Court found in favor of the Appellees. On appeal, Theopolois argues he proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the Appellees breached their standard of care to Laura and that this breach proximately caused Laura's death and resulted in damages.

         ¶2. Because we find substantial credible evidence supports the circuit court's judgment, we affirm.

         FACTS

         ¶3. Laura was born on October 28, 1954, with severe developmental disabilities. On February 12, 1980, Laura became a resident at Hudspeth, which is an intermediate-care facility for the developmentally disabled. For the next twenty-eight years, Hudspeth served as Laura's home. The Hudspeth staff diagnosed Laura with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), psychotic disorder, and seizure disorder. To provide better care specifically tailored to Laura's needs, Hudspeth created an individual-support plan (ISP) for her. The staff used the ISP to monitor Laura's progress toward stated goals, and an interdisciplinary team periodically reviewed the ISP.

         ¶4. On July 21, 2008, the interdisciplinary team reviewed and revised Laura's ISP. The ISP noted that Laura had a good appetite and was allowed to independently feed herself. However, the ISP also stated that Laura ate quickly "and should be monitored closely to prevent her from grabbing food in any environment." In addition, the ISP provided that the staff should redirect Laura "to an area farthest from the door, especially during lunch time" because she might try to steal food from the kitchen. With regard to Laura's other privileges, the ISP stated that she enjoyed going to the different areas of Tulip Cottage (her residence at Hudspeth), "toilet[ed] independently," and had bathroom privileges.

         ¶5. Laura died on October 26, 2008. Hudspeth's video footage showed Laura's movements prior to her death. The beginning of the video showed Laura asleep in a beanbag chair in Tulip Cottage's north dayroom. A Hudspeth employee awoke Laura, who then exited the dayroom. The employee followed Laura to the door, but after a few seconds, the employee turned around and reentered the dayroom. Laura walked down the north hallway and entered Tulip Cottage's south hallway, where she then entered the south hallway bathroom alone. The video showed Laura's legs while she was in the bathroom.

         ¶6. After exiting the bathroom, Laura walked back down the south hallway and headed in the direction of Tulip Cottage's kitchen. About forty seconds had passed since Laura had awoken and left the dayroom. After an additional forty seconds passed, Laura reappeared from the direction of the kitchen with what appeared to be cheese in her hand. Laura walked back down the south hallway, entered the north hallway, and stopped outside the dayroom door. Without entering the dayroom, Laura turned around and went back into the south hallway bathroom. A Hudspeth employee followed Laura into the bathroom. After Laura and the employee exited the bathroom, Laura entered Tulip Cottage's south classroom.

         ¶7. Once inside the classroom, Laura sat down and appeared to eat the item in her hand. A Hudspeth employee came toward Laura for a moment and appeared to speak to Laura. Laura then exited the classroom and walked back into the south hallway bathroom. A Hudspeth employee again followed Laura into the bathroom. Shortly after, a second Hudspeth employee also entered the bathroom. The video then showed Laura's legs on the floor as one of the staff members exited the bathroom. Nurses then entered the bathroom to help Laura, who remained ...


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