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Stabbing at Arizona hospital leads to lawsuit, questions about patient safety and security

Posted at 12:12 AM, Dec 04, 2018

PHOENIX, Arizona — Aaron Wallace was sleeping when he was attacked in his bed.

The patient at the Arizona State Hospital was stabbed by Reuben Murray, a fellow patient with a murderous past, who was wandering the halls unsupervised in the middle of the night with a sharpened pencil, according to a recent lawsuit filed against the state.

The lawsuit raises new questions about safety and security inside Arizona’s only public psychiatric hospital and whether conditions have improved after sweeping changes and promises were made following an extensive KNXV television station three years ago.  

The lawsuit also alleges warnings about Murray’s aggressive behavior were ignored in the days before the stabbing.

“The place is not better,” said Josh Mozell, an attorney representing Wallace. “Things have not changed. And for our clients, it’s becoming more dangerous.”

The director of Arizona’s Department of Health Services, Dr. Cara Christ, did not answer specific questions about the stabbing, citing patient privacy laws.

But in a written statement, Christ said the safety and well-being of patients are of “paramount importance.” [Read the full statement at the bottom of the page]

Wallace was stabbed on October 3, 2017, and he filed a lawsuit against the state in October this year. 

The case is being brought by Mozell and fellow attorney Holly Gieszl, who collectively represent many individuals with mental illness.

Some of the significant claims from the lawsuit:
- The attacker, Reuben Murray, has a lengthy criminal history, who has been convicted of aggravated assault and murder. He was committed to the state hospital in 2006, released in 2016, but then re-committed in August 2017.
- After his return to the hospital, Murray began threatening and assault patients and staff. Patients prepared and signed a petition expressing their fear of Murray and asking that he be moved or placed under closer supervision. The request was ignored.
- The hospital lacked staff who were strong and well-trained enough to get control of Murray once he attacked. There were no security officers in the hospital unit.
- Five years ago, ASH failed a federal inspection. The violations were found to “endanger” the lives of patients.

After the stabbing, Wallace was taken to a nearby medical hospital for treatment.

In an interview, Mozell also said that Wallace was not given any psychiatric treatment or therapy for the attack.

“He was asking for help,” Mozell said. “He just didn’t get it.”

Wallace’s attorneys also said they don’t have any record to support that the incident was reported to police.

But a state spokesperson disputes that claim, saying incidents like this are promptly reported.

However, citing patient privacy laws, the spokesperson said she couldn't provide the date police were notified and information about what police were told.

The failed federal inspection mentioned in the lawsuit was prompted by a series of reports by KNXV, which has reported on the hospital extensively in the past.

In 2013, KNXV revealed how an escaped patient murdered an innocent woman weeks after the hospital canceled his status as a missing person. The same year, the station also exposed an alarming level of violence inside the hospital. In a one-year period, there were 855 assaults.

In 2015, KNXV reported how the hospital was failing to prevent and report physical and sexual assaults to outside authorities. In one incident, a staff member was found undressed in a patient’s bed. The hospital called the police but only reported the staff member for trespassing.

In the wake of KNXV’s reports, six top executives were removed from office. The state health department promised change.  

But Wallace’s attorneys claim little has improved, creating a wider problem and danger outside of the hospital.

“Here’s why you should care: Everybody in that unit, as this assailant had been twice, gets out,” Gieszl said. “It’s not just endangering Aaron. It’s endangering everybody ... A failed state hospital is a public health threat to Arizona.”

“The safety and well-being of patients undergoing treatment at the Arizona State Hospital is of paramount importance to the Department. Our incredible and dedicated staff works 24 hours a day to provide the highest level of safe, effective and compassionate psychiatric care for the most vulnerable mental health patients in the state. Our patients include those who require intensive care for being acutely and persistently disabled, a danger to themselves, or a danger to others, as well as those who pleaded guilty except insane (GEI) to violent crimes. Over the past few years, ADHS has taken significant steps to build a nationally recognized quality management system, which includes robust reporting requirements. For any incident, ADHS ensures all necessary steps are taken, including providing appropriate medical care and following legal requirements to notify Adult Protective Services, local law enforcement, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the Regional Behavioral Health Authority (RBHA), and The Joint Commission. The Arizona State Hospital’s quality management system has led to better patient care and has been identified as a model for best practice. Independent third parties, such as The Joint Commission, Det Norske Veritas (DNV) group, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), have evaluated and verified the hospital’s policies and procedures on multiple occasions.”