Attorney notifies hospice that he will sue

Published 10:30 pm Saturday, April 26, 2008

An attorney has notified a north Mississippi hospice that he will pursue a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of a woman who died at the facility.

Casey Lott, a Booneville attorney, represents the relatives of Esther Lee Evans, who died at the Sanctuary Hospice House in Tupelo in September 2006.

“We believe Mrs. Evans died as a result of being administered lethal doses of morphine,” Lott said Friday.

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Evans is one of 11 people named as victims in a 33-count indictment that charges the facility’s director, Dr. Paul White, with 11 misdemeanor counts each of neglect and aiding and abetting the practice of medicine without a license. Marilyn Lehman, the facility’s clinical director, was charged with 11 misdemeanor counts of practicing medicine without a license.

Tony Farese, White’s attorney, said the hospice employees have done nothing wrong. It’s expected that people will die at the hospice, he said, because it treats terminal patients referred by physicians when “curative medicine no longer works.”

“It’s our position that Sanctuary Hospice House serves the specific and sensitive needs of dying patients with respect and professionalism,” Farese said.

Lott claims otherwise. He notified the facility this week that he intends to sue and will ask for monetary damages and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. The notification is the first step in the process of filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

L.F. “Sandy” Sams, the hospice’s attorney, did not immediately respond to a message Friday.

Lott also filed a petition in Lee County Circuit Court last month requesting the sworn depositions of three people who investigated allegations of suspicious deaths for the attorney general’s office. He wants to use that information in his lawsuit.

The fact that two of the investigators no longer work for the state could complicate the matter. Attorney General Jim Hood has said he will fight any attempt to compel his former or current investigators to discuss what they uncovered during the investigation.

The two former investigators, Don Scott and Susan Harkins, are eager to tell their side of the story, including what they claim was misconduct at the hospice, according to their attorney, Steven J. Irwin.

Irwin said he plans to sue the attorney general’s office for wrongful termination because Scott and Harkins were forced to resign for political reasons. He also said Harkins will sue for sexual harassment because she was the victim of a “sexual assault” by co-worker at the attorney general’s office.

Irwin claims Hood fired the two because he was getting political pressure to back off the investigation by powerful people who support the hospice.

“If politics had anything to do with the case, it would not have been presented to the grand jury,” Hood spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said in a statement.

Schaefer said the investigators were asked to resign after they were caught encouraging grand jury witnesses to contact the media “in violation of a gag order and the statute on grand jury secrecy.”

“One of the victims gave us a note with names and numbers of the press, which was given to the victims by one of the former employees in the presence of both,” she said. “Our office considers this to be a serious offense that will not be tolerated.”

Those allegations are “bogus and Hood knows it,” said Irwin, who claims the investigators told grand jury witnesses “not to call the media.”

The issue of how journalists learned of the grand jury proceeding is contentious because grand juries are supposed to be secret. Attorneys for Lehman and White want the charges against their clients dismissed on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, saying the media coverage could have influenced the grand jury.

Lott says the investigators told one of his clients, Linda Waters, who is Evans’ daughter and a grand jury witness, to call reporters. Lott said he has obtained a handwritten list of media organizations and telephone numbers that Harkins gave to Waters.

“I’m sure we could have a handwriting expert verify that,” Lott said.

Farese, the lawyer representing the embattled hospice director, also claims to have evidence that the investigators told witnesses to call reporters. He would not say what that evidence is.

“Isn’t it odd that Mr. Irwin is representing the two fired state investigations and (also representing) these alleged aggrieved families? These investigators were never objective, they’ve … been caught in misconduct that ended their professional careers,” Farese said.

Irwin disagrees, saying his clients were good investigators and collected strong evidence during a nine-month probe of the hospice. He confirmed that he also plans to sue the hospice on behalf of the families of several people who died there.