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Hospital settles suit over Kenny Chapman murders

By Michael Gordon and Elizabeth Leland
mgordon@charlotteobserver.com eleland@charlotteobserver.com

A lawsuit stemming from the 2010 Kenny Chapman killings – which ignited a Charlotte-area debate on emergency mental health care that continues today – apparently has been settled by Carolinas HealthCare System and the victims’ family, reportedly for $11.5 million.

In the case file at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, details of the settlement are hidden under a confidentiality clause.

But N.C. Lawyers’ Weekly reported the plaintiffs’ award this week, saying that the details track the Chapman case. The killings shocked the community while underscoring the life-and-death complexities of crisis mental health care.

“The matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all the parties,” said Charlotte attorney Chet Rabon, who represented some family members. He declined further comment.

Charlotte attorney James Cooney, who represented Carolinas HealthCare in the case, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Twice in 2010, Chapman asked for help at CMC-Randolph in Charlotte, the state’s only psychiatric emergency room. On both occasions, he said he wanted to harm or kill his wife, and needed help.

Twice, after Chapman backed off his threats, hospital doctors sent him home with medication that would have taken at least a few days to take effect.

Doctors who examined Chapman decided he didn’t need to be hospitalized for further treatment.

After the second visit on March 16, 2010, Chapman followed through with his threat. He suffocated his wife, Naeteesha Chapman, and his 1-year-old daughter Nakyiah. He stabbed his stepdaughter Na’Jhae, 13, more than 80 times.

For two weeks, he sent his other daughter and son to school and day care daily, threatening to kill them if they told anyone what had happened at home.

Two weeks later, after a brief standoff with police, Chapman shot himself in the head.

Family attorney Wade Byrd of Fayetteville was not available Wednesday for comment. But he told Lawyers Weekly that the case “is one of the most tragic … I’ve been involved with.”

Gail Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for Carolinas HealthCare, said Wednesday that the hospital doesn’t comment on legal matters.

‘Violating your own policy’

Chapman’s family sued in 2011, claiming that Carolinas HealthCare, which runs CMC-Randolph on Billingsley Road, had not adequately treated Chapman and had violated its own policy by failing to warn Chapman’s family of his threats against them.

The policy says, in part, that in the case of a “clear, imminent and reasonably foreseeable danger of harm by a patient to a known victim,” personnel should, “if appropriate,” contact police and the targets of the threats.

The hospital never did.

“The (policy) did away with the defense of ‘We had no duty to do that,’ ” Byrd told Lawyers Weekly. “We said you had an obligation under the standard of care and, by the way, you violated your own policy.”

Lawyers for the family also argued that CHS didn’t do enough to ease overcrowded conditions at its psychiatric hospital. As early as 2003, hospital officials had warned of “crisis-like” conditions at CMC-Randolph. Chronic overcrowding, which still exists, contributed to Chapman being turned away, the lawsuit said.

Hospital officials said Chapman received appropriate treatment. In court filings, they rejected the notion that CMC-Randolph’s high occupancy had anything to do with Chapman being sent home.

But Arthur Shorr, a veteran hospital administrator hired by the family to analyze the hospital’s management of its psychiatric center, had a different opinion. “Inpatient and emergency room overcrowding at CMC-Randolph has been chronic for at least eight years,” Shorr wrote in August 2011. Because it had let those problems fester, he said, the hospital’s leadership “appears to have lost sight of its mission” to serve the health needs of city residents.

According to Lawyers Weekly, the suit was settled after two mediation efforts failed. The money will set up a trust for the Chapmans’ surviving children.

Ruby Cosby of Teaneck, N.J., Kenny Chapman’s mother, referred questions about the settlement to the attorneys.

Cosby did say her two surviving grandchildren are “doing great.” Her grandson starts kindergarten this year while her 14-year-old granddaughter will be a high school freshman.

The older child “has good days and bad days,” Cosby said. “We’re trying to make it one day at a time.”

She added this: “I miss my son terribly.”

Critics of CMC-Randolph

Before and after the Chapman killings, CMC-Randolph has been a lightning rod.

Hospital officials say that its doctors and nurses offer top-notch care despite a crush of mental health patients from across the region.

Critics, from families to police and mental health professionals, say treatment is spotty and CMC-Randolph turns too many people away.

The Chapman case only added to the hospital’s list of critics.

“The public holds us accountable. The same thing needs to happen here,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Assistant Police Chief Eddie Levins said earlier this year about the case. “You drop them off on Billingsley Road and it’s a crapshoot. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Much has changed on the mental health front since the Chapman killings, but much remains the same, too.

• This spring, Dr. Roger Ray, the hospital system’s chief medical officer, used a community forum on mental health to announce CHS’s plan to make psychological screening as normal a part of a doctor’s visit as a blood-pressure check.

• CMC-Randolph, however, remains overcrowded. Its occupancy rate over the last two years has averaged 103 percent.

• The National Conference of State Legislatures says North Carolina is one of only four states that lack a “duty to warn” law that requires or urges medical professionals to warn potential targets of patient threats. CHS said after the killings that it had reviewed its own warning policy with its medical staff.

• In 2011, the same year the Chapman suit was filed, the hospital system announced a long-awaited expansion of its mental health facilities, with plans for a new hospital near Lake Norman.

Those plans opened a breach with Mecklenburg County, which owned CMC-Randolph and paid the hospital to run it.

While Carolinas HealthCare said the new hospital would improve overall behavioral care, county leaders complained that it would siphon off more affluent patients, leaving CMC-Randolph and the county to deal with the higher costs of serving people who are poor or uninsured.

Eventually, the county stopped its $16 million payment to Carolinas HealthCare and turned over CMC-Randolph to the hospital chain.

In April, within days of settling the Chapman case, hospital officials broke ground on its new psychiatric hospital in Davidson. Staff writer Elizabeth Leland and researcher Maria David contributed.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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