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Napa State Hospital fined in slaying of worker

Cal/OSHA says the mental hospital failed to restrict the movements of violent patients. A psychiatric technician was killed in October, allegedly by a patient.

April 14, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Jess Willard Massey is a suspect in the strangulation death of a psychiatric technician at Napa State Hospital.
Jess Willard Massey is a suspect in the strangulation death of a psychiatric…

California workplace safety officials have issued $100,000 in fines against Napa State Hospital in connection with the October slaying of a psychiatric technician, contending that the facility neglected to restrict the movements of violent patients — including the man charged in the strangling.

Cal/OSHA issued the citations Tuesday against the beleaguered psychiatric hospital, which has experienced steep increases in the number of patient assaults on peers and staff despite a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit in 2006 to impose reforms there and at three other state hospitals.

The gravest citation says the hospital violated its own policies by not restricting patients' grounds passes based on their previous behavior. The hospital knew that the patient charged in Donna Gross' killing had a "recent history of aggressive behavior, illegal drug usage, and stalking," the citation states, but allowed him to wander "with no supervision, in a totally unstructured environment."

Jess Willard Massey has pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering and robbing Gross, 54, on the grounds of the fenced area where patients accused or convicted of crimes related to their mental illness are held.

In its citations, first reported by KTVU in Oakland, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health also noted faulty alarm systems, inadequate employee training to deal with the increasingly violent patient population and assault investigations that "lacked analysis of the cause and thus were ineffective in preventing future occurrences."

The state Department of Mental Health will appeal the citations, Acting Director Cliff Allenby said in a statement Wednesday. He said the department would continue working on safety improvements, but cited "significant steps" already taken at the facility, including giving employees personal alarms that work on the grounds, increasing the police presence, limiting grounds access for patients and improving staff training.

Since the death, employees have been pushing for improvements that include more officers — not just reassigned ones — and segregation of the most predatory patients in a special unit. Employee unions contend that the changes to date have been inadequate. State Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) and Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa) have taken up the cause and this week jointly asked Gov. Jerry Brown to act quickly to implement more measures.

On Wednesday, Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, called the fines "peanuts compared to a life" but "a good first step" to improving safety.

The fines came to light as regulators are investigating the death of Napa patient William Roebling, 47. Roebling died Monday as staff members tried to restrain him as he assaulted a roommate, according to Napa County Sheriff's Capt. Tracey Stuart. Preliminary findings of an autopsy ruled out asphyxia and concluded that Roebling had an enlarged heart and coronary artery disease.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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