Nurse who lost part of ear in patient assault sues state

SEATTLE -- A nurse at Washington state's troubled psychiatric hospital who lost part of her ear when she was assaulted by a patient is suing the state for $5 million, claiming officials are to blame for failing to adequately staff shifts and by placing violent patients on less-secure wards.

"She was exposed to egregious work environment," Tacoma lawyer James Beck said Thursday of nurse Bernia Garner. ""She had a spinal fracture from the attack. Her mobilization is seriously impacted by all of this."

At the time of the Sept. 30 attack, Garner was the only registered nurse on duty, despite Western State Hospital's policy that requires three RNs per shift, Beck said. The patient, Christopher Adams Jones, had a history of assaulting and being sexually aggressive with female staff, but the hospital failed to implement measures to protect workers from his violent behavior, Beck said.

Jones was arrested and charged with assaulting Garner. His court-appointed lawyer, Laura Carnell, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.

Department of Social and Health Services spokeswoman Kelly Stowe said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The attack on Garner was one of several in recent months, including two separate incidents where patients knocked staff down and stomped on their heads.

The hospital has been plagued by problems for years and was repeatedly cited for health and safety violations, including escapes by violent patients. One man sent to the hospital after he was found incompetent to stand trial on a murder charge for tying up a woman with electrical cords, stabbing her 24 times and slashing her throat, slipped out of a window in 2016. He was caught two days later, 300 miles away in Spokane. An Associated Press investigation discovered 185 instances of patients who went missing over a three-year period.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finally cut the hospital's certification and $53 million federal funds earlier this year due to continued failed inspections.

Garner, 63, was working behind the nurse's station when the patient jumped over the counter, knocked her to the ground and bit her ear lobe off.

Prior to being moved to Ward S-7, the patient had attacked other female employees, Beck said.

"There was a mental health technician, Eloisa Panza, who was assaulted by the patient when he knocked her hard to the ground and tried to bite her thigh," the lawsuit said. Panza had to take three weeks off due to injuries suffered in the July 23 attack, but the hospital didn't make needed changes to protect other workers from the patient, the suit said.

"To my knowledge, Western State Hospital did not file any police report with regard to my attack by the same individual that later assaulted Bernia Garner," Panza said in a statement filed in support of Garner's claim.

After returning to work, Panza said the patient continued his inappropriate behavior and on one occasion before the ear-biting incident, grabbed Garner's arm.

"Bernia Garner was able to get away, but this was very distrustful for me to see occur and brought back the fear I had from my prior July attack," she said.

Nursing supervisor Willie Saw also wrote a statement supporting the claim.

"I am very concerned about the violence happening at the hospital right now," he said, "and while I feel vulnerable as well, I am especially concerned for my female coworkers."