DDSN Settles Lawsuits Alleging Wrongful Death, Injuries Caused by Employees

August 21, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SettlementOn its website, the S.C. Department of Disabilities and Special Needs says its regional centers provide “24-hour care, supervision and treatment” to the agency’s “most fragile consumers with the greatest need for support.”

Darnell Cornelius was one of those “consumers.” So was Solomon Reeder. Both men, who, according to records, suffered from autism and other disabilities, stayed at the Midlands Regional Center on Farrow Road north of Columbia.

The 35-year-old Cornelius wound up dead in November 2006 while under the center’s care, records show. The Richland County Coroner’s Office listed his official cause of death as “cardiac arrest”; a lawyer who represented his estate in a lawsuit told The Nerve on Tuesday that Cornelius had a “massive infection” that went untreated.

Reeder, 28, was physically abused in August 2008 by two center employees who later pleaded guilty to assault charges; three other workers were charged with failing to report the incident, records show.

The circumstances surrounding Cornelius’ death had not been previously revealed publicly. The Nervelearned about it this week after reviewing Richland County Circuit Court records and information from the state Insurance Reserve Fund, which insures state and local government agencies for liability and property claims.

The county and state records show that a lawsuit filed by Cornelius’ mother in 2008 was settled in March 2012 for $167,500. A 2010 suit filed by Reeder’s aunt, who was his court-appointed guardian, was settled in December 2011 for $27,000, according to records. Attorney fees were deducted from the awards.

In Cornelius’ case, the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN) “denied liability and vigorously defended the case,” according to the settlement petition. In its written answer in Reeder’s case, the department repeatedly contended that the “allegations are directed” to the two employees who were charged with assaulting Reeder, and because of that, the agency wasn’t liable under the state Tort Claims Act.

That law generally limits awards against government agencies to $300,000 per plaintiff or a total of $600,000 per case.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, DDSN spokeswoman Lois Park Mole said she couldn’t comment on specifics of the settlements in Cornelius’ and Reeder’s cases, explaining the negotiations were handled by attorneys with the Insurance Reserve Fund and not directly by her agency.

As for the level of safety at the Midlands Regional Center and other DDSN facilities, Mole said, “Regardless of whether there is any litigation, our priority is always going to be the health, safety and welfare of the customers entrusted to our staff.”

Richland County coroner records show that besides suffering from autism, Cornelius was mentally retarded and had a history of seizures and bleeding disorders. He was pronounced dead at Providence Hospital; the official cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrest due to cardiac arrhythmia,” according to those records.

The lawsuit against DDSN said Cornelius became ill around Nov. 10, 2006, while at the center, and that his “physical condition progressively deteriorated” while under the care of the “agents, servants and employees of the Midlands Regional Center and he eventually collapsed and died while under their care during the early morning hours of November 11, 2006.”

Columbia attorney Gary Popwell, who represented Cornelius’ estate and mother in the suit, told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday that Cornelius, whom he described as “severely autistic,” was in the medical wing at the regional center when he suffered a “massive infection that they didn’t check.”

“He was rolling around in the bed, and they never did take him to the hospital,” Popwell said. “There was someone checking in … but he rolled out of the bed onto the floor.”

In Reeder’s case, he was kicked in the right eye by a center employee, causing it to become “extremely swollen,” and another employee kneed him in the stomach and threw him to the floor, according to the lawsuit filed by his aunt. When confronted later about the Aug. 10, 2008, incident, the workers “lied to explain Reeder’s injuries, and said that Reeder had fallen and hit his eye on a bed post,” the suit said.

Although Reeder, who suffered from autism, mental disability and bipolar disorder, had “behavioral issues in the past,” his actions didn’t warrant the “abusive, undignified, and violent behavior he suffered at the hands of the Defendants,” according to the suit, which described Reeder as a “vulnerable adult” and “incapacitated adult” as defined under state law.

Columbia attorney Nekki Shutt, who represented Reeder and his aunt, said when contacted Tuesday byThe Nerve that she couldn’t comment on the case until she had a chance to review her files.

The two employees accused of abusing Reeder pleaded guilty to simple assault and battery, and were fired from their jobs, according to the suit. After the incident, Reeder’s aunt removed him from the center, where he had been living since May 2002, and brought him to her home to live with her, the suit said.

The aunt is “paying for a family member to take care of Reeder on a daily basis and is also paying for a portion of Reeder’s living and medical expenses,” the suit said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.