The children of a missing elderly woman found dead in a hospital stairwell have filed a lawsuit alleging that San Francisco failed to adequately care for their mother after she showed signs of dementia.
Ruby Lee Andersen, 75, left a board and care center at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital on May 19, 2018 to go to the store and never returned. A worker discovered her body 11 days later in the stairwell at a nearby engineering building on the hospital campus.
On Friday, her four adult children sued The City and County of San Francisco alleging that the Behavioral Health Center “did nothing” to protect Andersen despite acknowledging her deteriorating mental health and “profound inability to care for herself.”
“They recognized her confusion and yet they just kept doing things as had been done previously,” said Haig Harris, an attorney for the family. “They let her go off by herself and she died, pretty simple.”
Andersen was not the first person to die in a stairwell at the hospital. In 2013, a 57-year-old patient named Lynne Spalding was missing for weeks before her body was found in a hospital stairwell. Her family later reached a nearly $3 million settlement with The City.
Harris, who represented the Spalding family, drew a line between the two deaths. Just like in the Spalding case, Harris said the alarm on the door of the stairwell where Andersen died failed to sound.
“I don’t have any answers as to how this could not happen again because people either do their job or they don’t do their job, but it shouldn’t have happened again after the Spalding case,” Harris said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, which oversees the hospital, referred the San Francisco Examiner to the City Attorney’s Office for comment on the lawsuit. The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Andersen was a longterm resident of care centers overseen by DPH. Harris said she came to California from Texas at 18 and is remembered as a prolific reader who, in recent years, volunteered at libraries and Goodwill.
Andersen signed herself out of the center at 885 Potrero Ave. on the morning of May 19, 2018 to buy batteries for her hearing aid at a drug store several blocks away, according to the lawsuit.
But in her confused state, the lawsuit says she ended up walking through the unlocked entrance to the nearby engineering building and into an emergency stairwell. The door locked behind her.
Andersen could have walked up several flights of stairs and exited the stairwell to a parking lot. But the elderly woman went downstairs instead and was met with a locked door.
“She seemingly just laid down and died,” Harris said.
An employee at the engineering building noticed a smell and found her body on May 30, 2018. Harris said she had soiled herself, suggesting that she lived for some time before dying.
Harris said there is no indication that an alarm sounded the day she walked into the stairwell. The door had an alarm, but the battery had apparently died. He argues that amounts to The City creating dangerous conditions for the public.
Harris also alleges that numerous failures by the center also led to her death.
Months before Andersen died, her doctor noted that she was in “obvious decline” and would need a “higher level of care” in January 2018 medical records, according to the lawsuit.
That same month, the lawsuit says hospital staff also wrote that they planned to move Andersen to “a geriatric clinic where her aging needs would be served more effectively.”
“Ruby has become more confused, disorganized and her (physician) suspected early dementia,” they wrote.
But Andersen was not transferred to another facility, despite the center not being licensed to care for residents with dementia, according to the lawsuit. The day she went missing, a staff member let her out on her own.
“They recklessly disregarded her wellbeing and safety,” said Harris, who argues the alleged failures amounted to elder abuse.
Andersen’s death prompted a state investigation into the elderly care center. Last August, the California Department of Social Services cited the center for failing to provide Andersen with “appropriate care and supervision.”
The department ordered the center to implement a plan to prevent a repeated incident.
The Andersen case highlighted gaps in the Sheriff’s Department’s security protocols last year.
Andersen was reported missing the afternoon after leaving the center. While the Sheriff’s Department, which is tasked with policing the hospital, circulated a missing person’s report, deputies did not search the engineering building for her.
Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said at the time that they would have if Andersen was a patient at the hospital. But Andersen was not considered a patient as a resident of the center.
Immediately after Andersen died, DPH and the Sheriff’s Department said they would “undertake an updated comprehensive security assessment of all campus buildings and grounds, and develop recommendations for improvement.”
A DPH spokesperson did not comment on when asked for an update on security changes, citing the ongoing litigation.
A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department also did not respond to a request for comment.
The hospital closed the engineering building to the general public.
The lawsuit is filed in San Francisco Superior Court. The family is seeking unspecified damages in excess of $25,000.