LONDON, Ont. – Negligence at a London long-term care home caused the choking death of a 77-year-old woman found face-down in her plate of food, her family alleges in a $4.4-million lawsuit.
The family of Marjorie Woolner, who died six days after being admitted to the Mount Hope Centre for respite care, is suing St. Joseph’s Health Care London, the operator of the Grosvenor Street facility.
Woolner’s son, David, told staff his mother was at risk of choking and could only eat pureed or minced meals, saying she needed direct supervision while eating to ensure she took small bites washed down with a drink, according to the 16-page statement of claim.
Despite having access to Woolner’s medical records — she’d stayed at the home temporarily in the past — staff served her solid food and left her to eat it unsupervised in a corner table on May 30, 2015, alleges the lawsuit, filed with the Ontario Superior Court in London.
The claim goes on to contest that after finding Woolner face-down in her plate without vital signs, staff told emergency workers she had a heart attack, delaying potentially life-saving treatment. Woolner was taken by ambulance to University Hospital where she died a day later.
“It is terribly sad,” said lawyer Maia Bent, representing Woolner’s family. “They felt that they were putting her in the hands of professionals who would be able to look after her better than they could themselves while they took a very short respite break . . . They never anticipated anything like this would ever happen and were just devastated as a result.”
A statement of claim contains allegations not yet tested in court.
St. Joseph’s hasn’t responded with a statement of defence yet.
Asked about the case, a hospital spokesperson replied, “We can not provide comment on legal matters.”
Woolner’s death prompted the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to conduct an inspection at Mount Hope, resulting in two written notifications and two compliance orders issued. An inspector visited the home to talk with staff, view medical records and policies and tour the facility, according to a public copy of the report dated Sept. 29, 2015.
“The licensee has failed to ensure that the resident was provided with any eating aids, assistive devices, personal assistance and encouragement required to safely eat and drink as comfortably and independently as possible,” the six-page report says in its findings.
A nurse confirmed that since “the event,” seating arrangements have changed and residents with swallowing issues are monitored, the report says.
Bent said Woolner’s family is concerned that people researching long-term care homes won’t know the full details about the incident.
“There’s nothing that would alert the public that somebody died as a result,” said Bent, a partner with Lerners law firm in London.
“Their main concern is seeing that these types of preventable deaths don’t happen to anybody else’s mother or father.”
Jane Meadus of the Toronto-based Advocacy Centre for the Elderly said she often hears complaints from families of residents at long-term care homes, saying staff aren’t following specified diet guidelines for their relatives.
The problem, Meadus said, is likely to get worse as an aging population requiring specialized care moves into long-term care homes, many of them insufficiently staffed.
“They’re not getting the right type of care . . . especially during mealtimes,” Meadus said.
Bent has two other cases before the courts against long-term care homes — in Windsor and Barrie — involving choking deaths of residents.