A West Duluth assisted-living facility failed to protect a 74-year-old, dementia-stricken client who died after wandering away from the residence in July 2013, according to a lawsuit brought by the woman’s family.
Dale Gerard was found dead in a grassy area near Piedmont Avenue in April 2014, nine months after she walked out of Wesley Residence on Grand Avenue and boarded a Duluth Transit Authority bus.
The wrongful death suit, served this week on Wesley Residence and parent company At Home Living Facilities, claims that the care provider was negligent in failing to adequately secure the building and allowing her to leave unattended, violating established care policies.
“This case shows the terrible consequences that happen when facilities like Wesley Residence make the decision not to provide the care that is needed, and instead put other economic factors ahead of the care of its residents,” Andrew Gross, an attorney for the Gerard family, told the News Tribune.
Gerard, who suffered from a number of physical and mental health disorders, disappeared from the facility, 5601 Grand Ave., on July 20, 2013. Family members and local authorities urged the public’s help in locating her, but efforts were unsuccessful for several months.
Gerard’s body finally was found on April 15, 2014, near the area where she was last seen getting off the bus. The suit indicates that her “mummified” body was caught in a chain-link fence.
Gerard required care for “wandering, orientation issues, anxiety, verbal aggression, physical aggression, repetitive behavior, agitation, self-injurious behavior and property destruction,” according to the suit.
In response to safety concerns raised by the family, the facility established a “service plan,” which stated that she was “to be confined to Wesley unless accompanied by family or staff,” the suit states.
In addition, the family purchased a “WanderGuard” bracelet that would alert staff if she tried to leave through an exit equipped with proper technology. However, the system was ineffective because not all doors were linked to the technology, and Gerard learned how to disable the bracelet, Gross said.
The suit states that the bracelet was still on Gerard’s ankle when her remains were found.
A Wesley Residence employee reported to the Minnesota Department of Health in a subsequent investigation that the WanderGuard system created a “false confidence” for family members. She said the facility had received a quote for “thousands of dollars” to fully implement the system, but had not done so.
“It's just kind of meant to be a deterrent for those who wear it,” the unidentified employee said, according to a transcript. “But if the residents figure out that there's one door that doesn't have the alarm, they can go through.”
The health department did not issue any sanctions against Wesley Residence, finding that Gerard was her “own guardian” and that it was “unclear how and why the client left against medical and family advice.”
Gross said he disagreed with the findings.
“Wesley made it clear to her family that she was not supposed to leave the facility,” he said. “Maybe they had an informal practice of not complying with that policy, but you can’t do that. Those are promises that were made to the family.”
An autopsy performed by former St. Louis County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Uncini found no evidence of “blunt or sharp force trauma” in Gerard’s death.
Dr. Brad Randall, a former South Dakota medical examiner who reviewed reports in Gerard’s case, stated in an affidavit that the decomposed state of Gerard’s body indicated that she probably died in late July or early August. He cited “stress caused by the exposure to the elements” as the probable cause of death.
Gerard was survived by four sons, including two who live in Duluth. The four-count complaint, brought by son Mark Gerard, seeks unspecified damages in excess of $50,000.
Gross said the filing of the suit will surely “reopen some wounds” for the family, but he said Gerard’s children viewed it as the only course of action to bring about change.
“It’s come down to the fact that it’s going to take a lawsuit to bring change and make sure the facility takes the necessary steps to ensure compliance with the promises they make to residents,” he said.
Administrators or other representatives of the facility could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Minnesota Department of Health licensing documents indicate that the facility is owned by Chris Priley, who is president of Hermantown-based At Home Living Facilities. Maria Runyan, At Home Living’s executive director, is listed as Wesley Residence’s administrator.
The organization’s website states that it owns a number of group homes in St. Louis, Lake, Anoka and Washington counties, but does not include any information on its involvement in assisted-living facilities.
Wesley Residence was recently the subject of some attention after an 89-year-old resident, Melvin Stelten, was fatally struck by two vehicles along Grand Avenue on Jan. 20. Police said an investigation found no criminal wrongdoing in the death of Stelten, who was attempting to cross the busy street when he was hit.