A nurse who was badly beaten by a patient three years ago has been awarded $4.9 million by a Nassau County judge.
The suit was the first of two on behalf of nurse Marie Sweeney and brought by the Schlitt Law Firm of Huntington. The firm said it was filing suit Monday against Franklin Hospital, where the attack occurred, and North Shore-LIJ, which owns the Valley Stream hospital.
Because the former patient, Donte Oakes, is indigent and serving an 11-year term in prison, Sweeney is unlikely to collect any of the judgment, the law firm said.
In September 2010, Oakes broke off the wooden leg of a chair in his room and carried it into a common area where Sweeney was working with other patients. He attacked her, beating her over the head, face and neck until other staff could restrain him. The judge’s ruling found that Sweeney suffered multiple broken bones, a traumatic brain injury, extensive nerve damage and blindness in her left eye. The award compensates Ms. Sweeney for past and future pain and suffering, lost wages and medical expenses.
A suit against the hospital and its network will not be easy, attorney Carol L. Schlitt said, because of limitations set by state worker’s compensation laws. “Under worker’s compensation law, by being able to receive damages, the worker is limited to a percentage of lost wages and health care,” she said. “But in turn the employee cannot sue the employer.”
But in this case, Schlitt said, the firm believes there are other issues.
“We are claiming that in this case the hospital behaved in grossly negligent way in that there were prior assaults on three other employees in the weeks before attack and that they did nothing to protect nurses.
“In addition, OSHA investigated after attack and issued a citation against the hospital that they didn’t furnish a safe place to work, issued a report indicating 10 different feasible methods of abatement that the hospital could have used. And they furnished the rooms with furniture that coud be used as a weapon.”
The North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital System declined to comment on the suit but spokesman Terry Lynam said, “The leadership of Franklin Hospital and the North Shore-LIJ Health System was outraged by the attack on Ms. Sweeney and we continue to be sympathetic to her plight. Because of the unpredictability of their behavior, working with psychiatric patients can be hazardous, but the hospital and the health system believe that all reasonable steps have been taken to safeguard employees.”
Schlitt said the new lawsuit is about protecting nurses.
Oakes “was literally able to take apart a desk chair and use a leg of a chair the size of a baseball bat, come out of his room, pass the nurses’ station, to the day room where she was holding group therapy session. It’s outrageous to have that type of weapon in any patients’ room, especially a psych ward," Schlitt said.
“There was no panic button available in the dayroom; the only one was in the locked office of a psychiatrist. There were no surveillance cameras," she added.
Sweeney and Schlitt praised Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Randy Sue Marber for her ruling.
“This victory holds this man accountable for the way he altered my life,” Sweeney said after the verdict. “It is important to hold this criminal responsible on behalf of all nurses as we endure an increasing number of attacks at the hands of the very patients we are dedicated to serving. Nurses deserve protection.”
Schlitt said, “The verdict today holds him financially responsible for the damages he caused Ms. Sweeney.”
Sweeney, an Oceanside resident, had worked at the hospital for 28 years before the attack, said, “This is not about the money. It acknowledges the losses I have suffered.”