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Beyond Neglect: Houston Nursing Home Homicides

Stories of nursing home abuse and neglect are not uncommon. In fact, the problem has become so prevalent that in 2010, President Obama signed two new laws to address the problem of elder abuse. The Elder Justice Act provides federal resources to help prevent elder abuse, while the Patient Safety Abuse Prevention Act created a national program of criminal background checks on long-term care workers. However, what is far less common are reports of intentional homicide of a nursing home resident by another resident. Sadly, this is exactly what happened in April 2014 in Houston, Texas.

Below Average Patient Care at Lexington Place

Lexington Place Nursing and Rehabilitation in Northwest Houston has been the subject of an investigation by the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. After a 4-day probe that ended in February 2014, the agency determined that Lexington was deficient in more than 12 areas. Some problems included immobile residents being isolated in their rooms, nursing assistants improperly handling catheters, medication errors, and unsanitary conditions.

Furthermore, Lexington was found to provide below average care in that registered nurses spent only 25 minutes per day with each patient, while the Texas average is 34 minutes and the national average is 48 minutes. Another indication of the below average care at Lexington was apparent in 2013 when it received 7 times the number of complaints as other Texas facilities.

Homicides at Lexington

While there is not necessarily a relationship between the level of care in a nursing facility and patient violence, the poor conditions at Lexington could have set the stage for what happened on April 23, 2014.

On April 23rd, paramedics found two Lexington patients, Primitivo Lopez, 51 and Antonio Acosta, 75 badly beaten. One patient was already deceased. The other died at a hospital. Lopez and Acosta were roommates. A third roommate, Guillermo Correa, 56, was charged with killing Lopez and Acosta. Lopez and Acosta did not get along with Correa. The day of the murders, Lopez and Acosta had argued with Correa. Correa then beat the two men with the armrest of his wheelchair. Acosta’s family members report that they had repeatedly requested that Lexington move Acosta to a room away from Correa. The most recent request was just a few days before the murders. They complained to the staff that Correa was verbally abusive and violent. Acosta’s daughter described Correa as “a violent schizophrenic who heard voices, and believed someone was trying to poison him.” She even said that Correa had threatened to kill patients and staff.

Lexington’s Potential Liability

Since the tragic incident, Correa has been charged with capital murder. The families of Acosta and Lopez will likely file wrongful death lawsuits against Lexington Place. Lexington may have a difficult time defending itself. Under Texas law, Lexington has a duty to protect its patients from any type of abuse. Evidence that it was well-known to staff that Correa was prone to violence, coupled with its failure to honor Acosta’s requests to be moved away from Correa, puts Lexington in a difficult if not indefensible position. Furthermore, Lexington’s poor record of following Department of Aging regulations may help create a picture of a facility that shows little regard for the health, safety, and comfort of its residents.

Lexington Place’s fate is yet to be determined. In addition to possible financial liability to the families of Primitivo Lopez and Antonio Acosta, Lexington also faces the possibility of fines and even closure because of its many violations of state regulations. What steps should nursing homes and assisted living facilities have to take to ensure that patients are safe from the criminal actions over other patients? In recent years, federal and state lawmakers have been active in taking steps to protect patients from abuse from staff, but they have not been as aggressive in taking steps to protect patients from other patients.