A nurse has been awarded almost $5 million in civil damages against a former psychiatric patient who beat her with a chair leg three years ago at Franklin Hospital, leaving her blind in one eye and disabled.
State Supreme Court Justice Randy Sue Marber on Monday set the compensation for past and future health care expenses and wages for Marie Sweeney against Donte Oakes, who is serving an 11-year sentence upstate for the assault. Marber reached her decision after a one-day inquest in Mineola because Oakes didn't respond to the lawsuit.
The day Sweeney won the award, she sued the Valley Stream hospital and its network, the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, claiming they failed to protect workers.
"I lost my career," said the Oceanside resident, who lives with daily physical and emotional pain from the attack. "I want to make sure this doesn't happen to another nurse or health care worker."
Oakes was a psychiatric patient at the hospital in September 2010 when he interrupted a group-therapy session led by Sweeney. Using a chair leg he had broken off, Oakes repeatedly hit Sweeney, fracturing her facial bones, rupturing a vertebrae disk and causing other trauma.
Sweeney's attorney, Carol Schlitt of Huntington, said the hospital did not protect workers from a patient with a violent history. In the two weeks before the attack on Sweeney, Oakes had punched or hit other hospital workers in three instances, the attorney said.
Also, the hospital placed furniture in psychiatric patients' rooms that could be disassembled to be used as weapons, the suit said.
After investigating the attack, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the hospital in 2011 for exposing workers to violent patients. It suggested flagging charts of patients with a history of violence, having security readily available and installing alarm systems.
Terry Lynam, a spokesman for Franklin Hospital and the network, said safeguards were in place and that OSHA's suggestions were adopted after the attack on Sweeney.
"We continue to be sympathetic to her plight," Lynam said. "Because of the unpredictability of their behavior, working with psychiatric patients can be hazardous, but the hospital and the health system believe that all reasonable steps have been taken to safeguard employees."
Sweeney said her lawsuits aren't about money. She's unlikely to collect from Oakes, an indigent inmate, unless he somehow comes into money.
She said she hopes the suit and resulting damages will help people who face violence in the workplace but fear being reprimanded if they speak up.
Oakes never even apologized or answered summonses to her civil suit, she said. "I want him to remember me every day," Sweeney said. "I hope he knows what he took away from me."