Laguna Honda Hospital

Lawsuits Filed Against Laguna Honda Hospital

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Two lawsuits involving separate individuals were filed against Laguna Honda Hospital in January, as fallout from last year’s revelations of an alleged patient abuse scandal continues to plague the health care facility.

According to court documents and press reports, both patients are disabled and both allege they were photographed without their consent while naked, and for “non-medical” purposes by hospital staff members, and then those photos were distributed among other staff members with the intention of ridiculing and embarrassing them.      

The first lawsuit was filed on Jan. 6. It alleges that Laguna Honda staff violated the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act, the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act, the Information Practices Act and the California Patient’s Bill of Rights. 

Representing the patient in that case are attorneys Sara M. Peters and Khaldoun A. Bagdadi of the San Francisco firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly and Schoenberger.

In the court documents they identify the patient by the pseudonym “John Doe” to avoid further embarrassment and harassment. They are seeking damages for negligence and invasions of privacy based on public disclosure of private medical information. This patient is paralyzed and received medical and nursing services at the hospital in 2017.     

John Coté, the communications director  at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office said the office has not filed a response to the lawsuit with the court yet, but a case management conference is set for June 10. 

“Any staff member who had direct involvement with the misconduct is no longer employed by the City and was reported to their respective professional licensing agency,” Coté said. “Laguna Honda also notified local law enforcement of the misconduct. We are reviewing the lawsuit.”

The hospital’s CEO, Margaret Rykowski, did not respond to calls seeking comment by press time. However, she did comment on the allegations in the hospital’s 2018-2019 annual report:  

“This year also brought the troubling discovery of patient abuse by some staff members,” Rykowski wrote. “Once detected, we informed our patients and their families, regulators and the San Francisco community. As a result, we have worked diligently to improve specific processes related to reporting of conduct, medication management, our quality structure, culture and staff.”

The lawsuit alleges that in February of 2019, the patient was notified that hospital staff had engaged in physically, mentally or sexually abusive conduct toward him, but at the time no information about what specifically happened to him was given. 

Then in March, 2019 the man requested documentation of any and all physical, mental or sexual abuse that was perpetrated. A single photo was produced by the hospital and temporarily shared with him. It depicted him receiving an enema and was taken on a staff member’s personal phone, then text messaged by numerous other staff members for the purpose of making “inappropriate and sexualized jokes.”

When he tried to get additional information about the abuse perpetrated upon him, they “obfuscated or otherwise refused to give a full account of plaintiff’s abuse, such that the full extent of that abuse is yet unknown,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit further alleges that an investigation by California’s Department of Public Health later revealed hospital staff violated state and federal regulations by physically restraining residents for convenience and non-medical purposes; chemically sedating residents for convenience and non-medical purposes and without a physician’s approval or prescriptions; committing a battery against at least one patient; taking private and sexually explicit photographs of residents without their knowledge and consent, then disclosing confidential medical information to persons not privileged to receive such information. 

“Although defendants knew that plaintiff was utterly dependent on them for his safety, and although they knew that plaintiff would probably be unable to or severely limited in protecting himself from the abuse of his caregivers, they nevertheless knowingly and repeatedly failed to provide basic protections. 

“This behavior demonstrates a culture of abuse, and a lack of patient dignity, that is unacceptable at an institution entrusted to care for the elderly and disabled. Defendants betrayed their obligation to keep patient confidences and thereby violated plaintiff’s medical privacy rights,” according to the lawsuit.    

On Jan. 28, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that another patient, identified as “Jane Doe,” has also filed a lawsuit against the hospital, alleging that its employees took photos of her while she was naked for non-medical purposes and distributed the pictures among one another. 

According to the Chronicle, the woman is disabled and in a wheelchair, plus this lawsuit includes allegations of employees using racial slurs against the woman. She claims that one employee “pulled her by her shoulders across her hospital bed causing abrasions on her buttocks, legs and left side” and told her “we don’t like n—— here.” 

The article also reports the scandal includes 30 patients who lived in two wards of the city-run hospital, which primarily serves dementia patients. Six hospital employees are being held responsible for the abuse, which allegedly occurred between 2016 and January 2019, and included chemical restraint, sexual or sexually related abuse plus physical abuse.  

The woman recalled one instance when the photos were allegedly taken, after she had just returned to the hospital from surgery and was “still slightly sedated and/or drowsy” with pain medications.  

She woke up to approximately six hospital employees taking pictures of her while she was completely naked, leaning over her and photographing her bare buttocks. The suit further alleges the resulting photos were taken on the staff members’ personal phones and text messaged to other employees “for the purposes of making inappropriate and sexualized jokes.” 

The Chronicle also reports that the City has already paid a $780,000 fine to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid related to privacy violations, and additional fines could be forthcoming. 


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