Assaulted While Working at Western State Hospital, Women Should Get $2M, Jury Says


Pierce County jurors awarded about $2 million Friday to a former Western State Hospital nurse and three coworkers who were assaulted by a patient at the Lakewood facility.

Bernia Garner, Karen Jolley-Arnold, Kaitlyn Tritt and Eloisa Panza sued the state in 2019, arguing that it knew the patient had a history or targeting women, failed to protect them and later retaliated against them.

The civil trial started last month. Jurors returned their verdict early Friday after about two days of deliberations.

"With our increasing focus on the impacts of mental health, the state of Washington cannot ignore the safety of those members of our community who serve on the front line," James Beck, one of the attorneys who represented the women, said via email Friday. "Here, these four front line workers experienced harassment and then were retaliated against by the state, a betrayal of the worst kind."

Western State, Washington's largest inpatient psychiatric facility, is overseen by the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Asked about the case, DSHS spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet said via email Friday: "We're reviewing the matter and considering appealing."

Court records filed as part of the lawsuit give this account of what happened:

The 29-year-old patient, Christopher Jones, choked Tritt, injured her hip, and caused her other injuries when he attacked her in March 2018. That month he also hurt Jolley-Arnold's leg, back and neck by kicking her. He kicked her leg where she had a previous injury, and she still has difficulty walking.

"Between April and July 2018, Jones continued to target females, attacking female patients, displaying his genitals to female staff, and jumping over the nurse's station, which was not fully enclosed by protective plexiglass, while female staff were inside," according to a trial brief filed by the women's attorneys.

According to the brief, "On July 23, 2018, Jones attacked Ms. Panza, during the night shift. During that assault, Jones ran toward Panza — who weighs 93 pounds and stands at four feet eleven inches tall — knocking her to the ground. Partially on top of her, Jones then grabbed Panza's right leg and attempted to bite her thigh."

Some of the mental health technician's injuries included bruises, cuts and an ankle injury.

"Still, WSH took no steps to provide training on discriminatory assaults by patients or protect female employees from further harm," the brief said. "Nor did WSH transfer Jones to a higher-security ward, where staff had access to more safety resources such as fully enclosed nurse's stations and security personnel readily on call."

In September 2018, Jones jumped across the counter of the nurse's station, threw Garner to the ground, and bit off part of her ear. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and a fracture to her lower back as well.

Jones was found incompetent to stand trial after he was charged with second-degree assault, and the charge was dismissed.

'He was targeting females'

Attorneys for the women said Jones was sent to Western State in the first place because he assaulted a female nurse in 2016 at another facility.

"In December 2017, Jones was admitted to the civil ward of WSH where it was known that he was targeting females for intimidation and violence," their trial brief said.

Attorneys for the state argued in part that the case was "about unprovoked and unpreventable physical assaults from a psychiatric patient that occurred in the workplace, which resulted in injuries fully compensated by industrial insurance."

They also argued in their trial brief that Western State tried to accommodate the women when they wanted to return to work.

"The evidence will show that these assaults were not caused by gender discrimination or gender bias," the attorneys wrote.

Jurors disagreed. Asked on the verdict form if the women had proven "there was language or conduct of a sexual nature, or that occurred because of the plaintiff's gender," they checked "yes" next to each woman's name.

The state's attorneys noted in their trial brief that the women chose to work in a dangerous profession.

"Indeed, the undisputed evidence will show that the risk of assaults within state psychiatric hospitals is greater than the risk of assaults in any other health care setting," the brief said.

The women argued under the Washington Law Against Discrimination that they suffered a hostile work environment, that they weren't given reasonable accommodations after the attacks and that they were retaliated against. Jolley-Arnold also argued that she suffered disability-based discrimination when she was terminated from her job at the hospital after the attack.

The only one who remained employed at Western State is Panza, the trial brief filed by the women's attorneys said.

"... she asked that WSH not assign her as a 1:1 for assaultive patients as that is a job that should be for security personnel, that she not be assigned to perform takedowns of assaultive patients, and that she be provided a radio or pendant that would work in an emergency to call for help," the brief said. "DSHS did not assess or respond to any of these requests and left Panza on her own to eventually bid and secure a position on a different ward."

One of the questions on the verdict form was if a "substantial factor in the decision to not reasonably accommodate" the women was that they opposed what they "reasonably believed to be discrimination or retaliation" or provided information to or participated "in a proceeding to determine whether discrimination or retaliation occurred."

Jurors checked yes next to each woman's name.

All the women would have been able to perform the essential functions of their jobs with reasonable accommodation, the jury found.

After they returned the $2,094,245 verdict Friday against the state, Janelle Chase Fazio, one of the attorneys who represented the women, said in an emailed statement: "Every Washington worker has the right to work without discriminatory harassment and retaliation. We are honored to have represented these four women, who represent the community as a whole."