Posted on Jun 19, 2007

The Georgia Department of Human Resources (GDHR) paid the family of Sarah Elizabeth Crider $1.25 million, the largest financial settlement for families of patients who died in a state mental facility over the last 10 years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported June 18. State law caps wrongful death settlements from state agencies at $2 million. The family received $1 million for the wrongful death and the deceased’s estate was granted $250,000.

Teenage Girl Died of Severe Intestinal Blockage

Sarah died at Georgia Regional Hospital on February 13, 2006 after failing to pass a bowel movement for 18 hours. The medical examiner said the 14-year-old resident of Cobb County died of severe intestinal blockage that medical records showed went unnoticed by doctors and nurses at the 38-year-old state mental facility in DeKalb County. The medical report said the intestinal blockage caused Sarah’s colon to stretch almost to the point of bursting. Her lungs were filled with vomit. She also had developed bacterial sepsis, an infection of the blood.

The Chief Medical Examiner in Sarah’s case, Dr. Kris Sperry, said the girl’s condition was a medical emergency that required immediate surgery. “People should not die of obstructed intestines,” she said.

Hospital Staff Failed to Monitor Girl’s Condition

Sarah, diagnosed as autistic and schizophrenic, vomited several times the night before she died. When a doctor was summoned to the adolescent unit that night, she did not physically examine Sarah. Medical staff at Georgia Regional failed to check Sarah for as much as four straight hours. At 6:15 the next morning, staffers found her body with an enlarged abdomen and brown substance oozing from her mouth. Sarah had no pulse and was lying in vomit. The hospital record stated, “Rigor mortis had already set in,” by the time staffers discovered her dead body.

“The state took responsibility for the death of Sarah Elizabeth Crider,” said Alwyn Fredericks, the family’s attorney. “We still think it was a tragedy but state officials did the right thing.”

Situation Seems Widespread in State Hospital System

In the wake of the girl’s death, the AJC conducted a series, “The Hidden Shame,” reporting on the suspicious deaths of 115 Georgia state mental patients from 2002 through 2006. After Sarah died, state mental hospital officials mandated that staffers monitor patients’ bowel movements. However, months later, the AJC reported another mental patient, 59-year-old Michael Ernest Webb, died after he went 19 days without a bowel movement which went unmonitored by state hospital staff.

After Sarah’s death, Gov. Sonny Perdue said he would issue an executive order for an investigative panel to study the state mental hospital system. On that panel would be members from his executive branch, which oversees Georgia’s seven state mental hospitals.

Prior to Sarah’s case, the largest state settlement involving the death of a mental hospital patient was $850,000. That payout went to the family of 53-year-old Rome resident Rickey Dean Wingo, who was choked and beaten to death during an altercation by staff at Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta in 2002.

In the Crider case, GDHR terminated Sarah’s primary care physician at Georgia Regional but not the doctor who failed to examine the teen in her room the night before her death. Gwen Skinner, director of the GDHR’s Mental Health division, said “Any time you have a child die, the system has failed.”