The family of a man fatally shot by Santa Fe police in July has added to a wrongful death lawsuit Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, two of its employees and a company that runs its emergency room.
The decision to release the man from the hospital the day before he died, despite signs of untreated schizophrenia, amounts to negligence and demonstrates deception in how the hospital advertises its psychiatric services, the family claims in its amended complaint, filed March 22 in state District Court in Santa Fe.
Anthony Benavidez died after two Santa Fe police officers fired 17 shots at the 24-year-old during a July standoff at an apartment complex in southeast Santa Fe. The day before his death, Santa Fe County Sheriff's deputies and city police were sent to the Tuscany at St. Francis Apartments to evict Benavidez for a single late monthly rent payment. Benavidez' half-sister, Roseanne Lopez, last year filed a lawsuit naming the city of Santa Fe in the alleged wrongful death of Benavidez, claiming it has failed to properly train the police force in de-escalation techniques during encounters with people with untreated mental illness.
With the help three law firms, Lopez is now taking aim at the hospital.
The amended complaint names as additional defendants Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, a New Mexico nonprofit that runs Santa Fe's only hospital; Christus Health, a Texas corporation that owns the hospital; Healthfront, PC, a New Mexico corporation that contracts with the hospital to provide emergency room care; Howard Gabor, a board member of Healthfront and licensed emergency room physician at the hospital; Anjali Yeolekar-Dasari, a licensed physician practicing psychiatric medicine in the emergency room; and Tamara Dubinsky, a clinical counselor for the emergency room.
Arturo Delgado, spokesman for Christus St. Vincent, says Yeolekar-Dasari and Dubinsky are employees of the hospital and thus could not comment. Gabor, with Healthfront, did not return a voicemail seeking comment on the lawsuit.
"When it comes to behavioral health patients, there are cases in which we are able to admit and treat patients in our hospital, cases in which patients are released, and cases in which we transfer patients to a more appropriate setting and level of care," Delgado says in a statement.
On July 18, sheriff's deputies wrote in reports that they first encountered Benavidez inside his dark, first-floor apartment staring motionless at a computer screen; Benavidez was slow-moving with stiff limbs and oily hair from failure to bathe, according to the lawsuit, which says his refrigerator was full of rotting meat.
Concerned about Benavidez' condition, the sheriff's deputies called an ambulance to take him to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center's emergency room.
Laura Schauer Ives, one of the attorneys representing Benavidez' estate, says that's why first responders asked medical staff at the hospital to involuntarily hold Benavidez. She called the decision to release him "cruel" because he was "clearly unable to care for himself."
Delgado, the hospital spokesman, says in an interview that those decisions are complicated.
The lawsuit claims Benavidez met the standard of care for being involuntarily held at the hospital because he was in a state of "grave passive neglect," which under the state's involuntary commitment law is defined as "failure to provide for basic personal or medical needs or for one's own safety to such an extent that it is more likely than not that serious bodily harm will result in the near future."
The lawsuit also claims that Christus St. Vincent and Healthfront "knowingly and repeatedly made false and misleading statements about the quality of psychiatric services" they provide in the Santa Fe community.
Christus St. Vincent claims its "psychiatrists perform a comprehensive initial evaluation and medications [sic] when necessary" and that they "will continue to meet with the individual one on one in order to assure a stable recovery," the lawsuit says. Healthfront makes similar claims, according to the lawsuit.
But the providers gave "no such services" to Benavidez, whom the lawsuit claims would not have been released had the defendants adequately assessed his "serious mental condition."
Authorities believe Benavidez, released three hours after being admitted into the emergency room, later broke into the apartment from which he was evicted. The next day, police asked the caseworker to help remove Benavidez. Santa Fe Police claimed they called in a SWAT team after Benavidez stabbed him with a knife, but the lawsuit says Benavidez "nicked" him.
After an hour-long standoff, a police SWAT team busted the apartment window and the two officers fired a combined 17 shots at Benavidez through the window frame, killing him. Police claim the officers stormed the apartment and ultimately fired because they believed Benavidez posed a deadly threat, but the lawsuit challenges that claim.
A state police spokeswoman said the department passed along its criminal investigation of the shooting, including statements by the two officers, to District Attorney Marco Serna. Serna, who appoints special prosecutors to determine whether police shootings are justified, did not return inquiries from SFR about the status of the review.