Civil rights attorneys on Thursday sued Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in connection with the alleged dumping of a paraplegic man on skid row last year.
The incident sparked nationwide outrage after The Times reported that the man crawled in the gutter in a soiled hospital gown while dragging a catheter bag. Witnesses told The Times that the van driver, Finece Mathis, ignored their pleas to stop.
The suit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of the paraplegic man, 42-year-old Gabino Olvera, and seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages against the hospital for alleged elder abuse, negligence and infliction of emotional distress.
It also asks the court for an injunction that would bar the hospital and the van company, Empire Transportation Inc., from engaging in future cases of “homeless dumping.”
“When you tell the average person this, they are completely shocked that a hospital would treat a human being in this way,” said Hernan D. Vera, an attorney at Public Counsel and one of the plaintiff’s lawyers. “Mr. Olvera is personally committed to seeing the hospital shape up and do the right thing by changing its discharge policy toward the homeless.”
Olvera was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian after an automobile accident, according to the complaint. After his arrival, the suit alleges, hospital officials failed to diagnose and treat him for a urinary tract infection or take into account apparent signs of mental illness.
After several hours at the hospital, Olvera was taken by ambulance about 12:30 a.m. to the Midnight Mission in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles.
The mission staff noted that Olvera did not have a wheelchair, and they did not have the facilities to deal with someone in his condition, the suit alleges.
Olvera was brought back to Hollywood Presbyterian and placed in a wheelchair in a corner of the waiting room, where he sat unattended for eight hours with no food or water, according to the suit.
“During this time, Mr. Olvera continued to exhibit signs of mental instability, which were ignored by the hospital,” Vera said.
The next morning, Olvera was placed in a van and driven to skid row.
There, Olvera was told to get out and had to drag himself toward the curb with a bag of his possessions clenched in his teeth, the suit alleges. When a crowd began to gather demanding help for the man, the driver cursed him, saying he had soiled her van, according to police and witness accounts of the incident, as related in the suit.
Then the driver “stopped to check her makeup in a mirror, sprayed herself with perfume and then sped off, coming dangerously close to running over him,” the lawsuit states.
“This is the most callous and obscene example of homeless dumping we have ever seen,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California who is also one of Olvera’s attorneys. “They treated him like refuse at the hospital, and they treated him like refuse when they dumped him in the gutter.”
Hollywood Presbyterian issued a statement Thursday saying that it remained optimistic that a settlement could be reached and saying that the hospital had taken steps to ensure that such incidents did not happen again.
“The plight of homeless individuals, and the provision of healthcare, is a critical social issue, but the homeless problem can’t be solved by HPMC alone,” the statement said. “The solutions must come from government, but we are committed to doing our part.”
The lawsuit is the latest in mounting legal troubles for Los Feliz-based Hollywood Presbyterian related to allegations of homeless dumping.
In June, city prosecutors filed civil complaints accusing Hollywood Presbyterian and Methodist Hospital in Arcadia of patient dumping -- two by each hospital -- over a 14-month period.
City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo is trying to use a state law dealing with unfair business practices, which has been used to prosecute alleged slumlords and which allows a corporation to be sued for unscrupulous behavior, against the hospitals.
Delgadillo also referred the case against Hollywood Presbyterian to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for possible criminal charges.
During a news conference Thursday, Olvera’s attorneys said they hoped the case would not go to trial. In a statement read by his attorneys, Olvera said, “I want to keep fighting, to make sure that the hospital knows that there are consequences, and to make sure others don’t suffer like I did.”