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Nevada likely to appeal huge verdict over busing psychiatric patients out of state, official says

A 15-hour bus ride from Las Vegas to Sacramento, where he knew no one, also put James Flavy Coy Brown on the road to legal action,  testing the rights of mentally ill people. Brown has been reunited with his daughter in North Carolina.
A 15-hour bus ride from Las Vegas to Sacramento, where he knew no one, also put James Flavy Coy Brown on the road to legal action, testing the rights of mentally ill people. Brown has been reunited with his daughter in North Carolina. The Sacramento Bee

The state of Nevada will likely appeal a jury verdict that it must pay $250,000 to scores of people it put on Greyhound buses after discharging them from a mental health hospital, officials said Friday.

A Sacramento Bee investigation in 2013 found that Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital purchased bus tickets for roughly 1,500 patients after discharge over a five-year period, sending them to California and other states across the country. Some of the patients, The Bee documented, became homeless and disappeared after their bus trips. Some died tragically. Some committed serious crimes in their new cities.

Critics of the practice accused Rawson-Neal of “Greyhound therapy,” sending patients to other states without a plan for care so they would not need to continue treating them. The hospital denied routinely busing patients with no plan for their care.

Following a three-week trial, a jury found Thursday that each participant in the class-action lawsuit is entitled to $250,000, said Mark Merin, the attorney for bused patients.

Martha Framsted, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said Friday that her department would ask the attorney general to appeal the verdict.

“Rawson Neal hospital continues to be committed to providing safe and appropriate discharges,” Framsted said.

State Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office issued a statement saying that the busing practices noted in the lawsuit took place in 2013, before Laxalt took office. Laxalt is the Republican nominee for governor in this year’s election. His office referred all questions to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Due to a statute of limitations, only patients bused after June 2011 will be eligible for the jury award, Merin said. State law caps damages at $100,000 per claim.

Merin said each plaintiff made two claims against the state, so the cap may limit the amount each person can receive to $200,000.

Merin’s office has contact information for more than 300 patients who the hospital said it bused. His office has interviewed close to 90 people. He is optimistic they can find many more.

“We want to be able to go up to these people – ‘are you John Jones? Well, here’s a check for $200,000,’” Merin said. “I would love to present that kind of money to them and change their lives.”

However, Merin said it could be at least a year before the appeals process is exhausted. He also expects the state to file a number of motions in the next few weeks to attempt to have the jury’s verdict reduced or set aside.

The trial included testimony from a dozen former Rawson-Neal patients, Merin said. He said he talked with jurors after the verdict and one of them told him, “The state had no regard for these people, and they had to learn.”

Merin filed the lawsuits on behalf of James Flavy Coy Brown, whose bus trip took him to Sacramento, and potentially hundreds of others who had similar experiences. The Sacramento Bee documented Brown’s story beginning in 2013.

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During the long ride to Northern California, Brown had rationed the peanut butter crackers and Ensure nutritional supplements that a staff member at the mental hospital had given him, along with his discharge papers and a bus ticket to Sacramento. His food was gone, and he was nearly out of the medication to treat his array of mood disorders, including schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.

According to a state investigation, Brown spent 72 hours in the hospital’s observation unit before a doctor discharged him to a Greyhound bus to Sacramento. The discharge orders noted he should be given a three-day supply of Thorazine, Klonopin and Cymbalta to treat his schizophrenia, anxiety disorder and depression, plus “Ensure and snacks for a 15-hour bus ride.”

Brown wound up homeless in Sacramento after arriving by bus. No prior arrangements had been made for his care or housing. He told police he was advised by the Nevada psychiatric hospital to “call 911” when he arrived in the capital city.

Brown testified during the trial. He could not be reached for comment on Friday. The hospital has said that it no longer buses people out of state without chaperones.

The Bee’s stories about the busing scandal won several national journalism awards, and were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. In the wake of The Bee’s reports, Rawson-Neal lost its accreditation and its treatment protocols have been the focus of ongoing reviews by state and federal agencies.

Phillip Reese is a data specialist at The Sacramento Bee and teaches at Sacramento State: 916-321-1137
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