BANGOR, Maine — The son and daughter of a man who died in a house fire in Monroe on May 16, 2013, blame Eastern Maine Medical Center for releasing him against their wishes, just hours before his death.
Randy N. Oliver II, 32, of North Potomac, Maryland, and Nicole Jernigan, 34, of Cape Coral, Florida, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Bangor hospital after Randy N. Oliver Sr. died at the age of 56.
A jury-waived trial in the case began Monday before Superior Court Justice Ann Murray.
Randy Oliver II and Jernigan were appointed as legal guardians for their father, with a probate court determining that the chronic alcoholic, who had been diagnosed with dementia, could not care for himself.
Nine hours later, he died in the blaze, which destroyed his home, they said. The cause was never determined.
“The bottom line is this: Patients like this who are helpless themselves and who have people in their lives who are there for them should not have that taken away from them by the hospital,” the younger Oliver said Sunday in a pretrial interview.
Randy Oliver Sr. was drunk and delusional when his daughter brought him to EMMC on March 23, 2013, his son said. He had not bathed in more than a month and had no running water in his house, with only a wood stove for heat.
“He had second-degree burns on his hands, which were covered with soot,” he said.
He remained at the hospital for two months. Staff were unable to find a long-term care facility that would accept the elder Oliver, who was born in Canada but was a permanent resident of the U.S. He was on Medicaid and permanent Social Security Disability because of a work injury years before his death.
He also was a difficult patient who needed an EMMC employee with him at all times, his daughter said.
In April 2013, EMMC staff told Jernigan that her father needed a legal guardian, either a family member or the state, she said. The hospital began talking about releasing Oliver over his children’s objections in mid-April, according to the siblings’ attorney, Peter Clifford of Kennebunk.
“The decision was made to discharge him, and they called one of his drinking buddies to come pick him up,” his son said.
Clifford told the judge Monday in his opening statement that EMMC was negligent in its disregard of the children’s wishes for their father.
“EMMC looked almost exclusively at the fact that he was stronger and he was not drinking two months [while hospitalized],” Clifford said. “They failed to look to see if he was able to live in a squalid home, and he died within few hours of his discharge.”
The hospital has claimed it was not negligent in releasing Oliver and did not violate the terms of the children’s “limited guardianship,” which allowed him to make decisions when he was capable, Edward Gould, the Bangor attorney representing the hospital, told the judge in his opening statement.
“Due to his treatment at EMMC, Mr. Oliver gradually came out of his alcoholic fog,” Gould said. “He repeatedly told hospital staff that he wanted to go home. The family wanted him in a locked facility.”
A neuropsychological test, administered a few days after Oliver was admitted and again on May 7, 2013, showed a marked improvement, Gould said.
“Nicole was asked if her father could go home with her, but she said, ‘No, I have three kids,’” Gould said. “He had capacity to make the decision to go home. There was nothing more the hospital could do.”
Jernigan and her brother disagree because of their father’s continued dementia.
“This was a struggle for our entire lives — his struggle with alcoholism,” the younger Oliver said Sunday. “This was a point in our lives where, finally, we thought, OK, we could take control here and get him the help that he needs. That’s what we were in the middle of doing.
“We felt we were doing the right thing and had the rug pulled out from under us,” he said.
Testimony will conclude next week, but Murray is not expected to issue a written decision for several weeks.