In an unusual situation, an eastern Pennsylvania nursing home patient is being charged with a homicide in the death of another patient. As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was interested to see that Carl Smith was arraigned on charges of involuntary manslaughter for pushing Margaret Lechleitner, 85. Both were residents of the dementia ward at Weatherwood Nursing Home in Weatherly, a Carbon County community between Allentown and Scranton. Lechleitner died after she fell to the floor, hit her head and suffered a subdural hematoma, a kind of blood blister. The death was ruled a homicide by the Luzerne County coroner--but the ruling only means that it was caused by another person, not that it was a criminal act. According to WNEP, medical experts and a judge will decide whether the case should go to trial.
The incident leading to Lechleitner's death took place April 20. Smith told authorities that Lechleitner pushed him first and he pushed back, though police say there's no evidence that she pushed him. After Lechleitner hit her head, she was taken to the Hazleton General Hospital just over the county line, where she died the next day. Police said they had to balance competing interests in the case, because Smith has dementia as well. An officer said the police wanted to make sure justice was served for Lechleitner's family, but also that everyone around Smith is safe and that Smith continues to get treatment. An Alzheimer's Association of Pennsylvania spokeswoman told WNEP that she has never seen an arrest, or indeed any situation where one dementia patient caused the death of another.
Interestingly, no one in the articles commented on the oversight responsibilities of the nursing home. Of course, there may have been nothing that nursing home attendants could do, if the incident happened quickly. But if Smith and Lechleitner were left together without supervision, the home may be vulnerable to a Pennsylvania nursing home abuse lawsuit alleging that it was negligent. Dementia patients end up in nursing homes because they need the kind of 24-hour supervision that families often can't provide. In fact, in nursing homes, they are known for having difficult behavior. Nursing home staffs are supposed to keep them out of trouble, but as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I know understaffed, stretched-thin homes let things slide sometimes--and patients can die or suffer injuries as a result.