Family of nursing home patient found in trash sues

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Ralph Ford relocated to the St. Francis Nursing Center in Detroit nearly three years ago, relatives felt certain he’d be well-cared for.

The city native, who was cognitively impaired and known to wander off, had previously lived in adult foster care but needed extra attention, said his niece, Carlas Parker. That’s why the east side facility, with its guard and round-the-clock staff in a building not far from her mother, seemed the perfect fit.

“We felt secure there,” Parker said. “We thought everything was covered — he would be safe there. It was a good place for him to be.”

But now, after the 73-year-old was found dead last week in a trash bin outside the nursing home, they’ve filed a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court against the care facility alleging negligence, lax oversight and regulation violations.

Detroit police said construction workers spotted Ford in a clothing-filled, Dumpster-like container near the center in the 1500 block of Cadillac on Jan. 18. Attorneys said he was “suffering from hypothermia, as a result of the freezing overnight temperatures” and “having also been deprived of that necessary medical care to address his existing ... fragile state of health … ultimately died.”

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the man died of natural causes and “there were no signs of foul play or trauma,” said Officer Nicole Kirkwood, a spokeswoman for the department. But the circumstances alarm his family.

“I would say we have done many of these cases and just when you think you’ve seen the most egregious, deplorable act of neglect, along comes another case that is even more shocking,” said Mark Bernstein, the Farmington Hills-based lawyer representing Ford’s family. “There is no greater failure and there is no greater consequence. This is the fundamental job of this facility — to keep its residents safe and secure. And they failed that miserably and tragically.”

An employee at the center declined to comment and said no one was available to answer questions.

Meanwhile, Ford’s loved ones are haunted by his loss and seeking justice to prevent others stemming from such care. “It’s outrageous that he would be found dead, in a dumpster, in the winter, cold, alone in the dark,” Parker said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Attorneys said the center’s promotional materials portray the site as being a “safe, secure and nurturing environment” with the capabilities to care for residents who “have tendencies to wander.”

That led relatives to purposely select St. Francis for Ford, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, renal failure and other issues. Parker also specifically mentioned his roaming when her uncle was admitted in 2013.

Since then, she regularly visited and even celebrated his birthday there last summer. Operations seemed routine, Parker said. “I never would have guessed in a million years that he would have been found dead in a Dumpster behind the nursing home.”

State records show the center has faced issues before. The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs website lists several complaints authorities probed last year — including allegations that a certified nurse aide “rough handled” a resident and a patient didn’t receive psychiatric services.

The lawsuit filed Thursday accused the facility and its operator of at least 19 negligent acts that contributed to Ford’s death.

Lawyers allege staff were unaware he left in his wheelchair sometime Jan. 17 and the site lacked active door alarms, monitored exits or thorough bed checks at night.

Damages of at least $25,000 are sought, Bernstein said. “Clearly, they don’t care about their resident’s safety. So we’re going to ask for damages that hold them accountable.”

As the case unfolds, Parker clings to memories of her uncle, a former railroad worker who loved singing, dancing and boats. “I tried to make him understand that he had value and he was significant,” she said. “I really went out of my way to make him feel special, that he was loved, that he mattered.”

His death has also led Parker to question considering a nursing center for her aging mother. “I’m really afraid,” she said. “I don’t trust them now.”