On Oct. 21, 2015, an Oakland County Michigan jury returned a $5,000,080.00 verdict in favor of the estate of a 90 year-old woman who died after ingesting a caustic detergent in the memory care unit at the Fountains Of Franklin in Southfield, Michigan. The assisted living facility is owned and managed by Watermark Retirement Communities based in Tucson, Arizona.
The estate was represented by Lawrence J. Buckfire of Buckfire & Buckfire, P.C. The Honorable Dennis C. Drury presided over the seven day jury trial. The trial was held in the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan.
The decedent was moved into the facility’s memory care unit five weeks before the incident due to condition of dementia and her need for supervision. The unit had locked doors to prevent residents from wandering away from the facility and two caregivers in the unit to supervise and care for the residents. The unit also had a barrier free kitchen accessible to residents, but meals were prepared outside the unit and served to the residents in the unit’s dining room by an outside contractor.
Although meals were prepared outside the unit, the contractor washed the dishes in the unit’s kitchen sink and loaded them into a dishwasher near the sink. The facility stored a caustic dishwashing detergent beneath the sink with a spigot connected to the dishwasher. The detergent was stored behind two cabinet doors, one which had a plastic child magnetic lock and the other door had a makeshift wood stick closing mechanism designed by the maintenance staff.
On December 1, 2012, the resident gained access into the cabinet and ingested the detergent. She was not supervised at the time because one of the caregiver’s was on a meal break, leaving the other caregiver to supervise and dispense medication to seventeen residents by herself. The caregiver who left for dinner was gone from the unit for fifty-six minutes, exceeding his thirty minute allotted break time. During his absence, the facility did not bring in a substitute to supervise the residents.
When the caregiver returned from his break, he saw the decedent sitting alone in the dining room with her head leaned back and her lips swollen. He and the other caregiver called EMS and then discovered the kitchen cabinets open and the bottle of detergent on its side. The resident was rushed to Providence Hospital with serious damage to her mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach. The injuries were so severe that surgery was not an option and she was unable eat or drink. She died thirteen days later in the hospice unit of the hospital.
The lawsuit was filed on May 2, 2013 seeking damages under the Michigan Wrongful Death Statute. During the trial, jurors heard testimony from facility employees, expert witnesses, and family members. Plaintiff’s contended that the doors were not secure enough to keep a dementia resident from accessing the deadly chemical and that supervision was sub-standard. The Defendant argued that either the decedent or some unknown person forcibly tore a hinge out the cabinet to get access to the chemical.
“The Defendant chose not to provide the necessary supervision and used wholly inadequate locking mechanisms to prevent residents from gaining access inside the cabinets. The detergent did not even have a secure lid on it just in case someone forgot to lock and secure the door. It was a tragedy just waiting to happen,” said Buckfire. “She suffered a horrible and agonizing death which was completely preventable if proper basic safety measures had been taken by the facility.”
The jury award included compensation for her pain and suffering from the time of incident until her death, the loss of society and companionship suffered by her surviving family members, and both medical and funeral expenses. The jurors deliberated for approximately two hours.