Family sues nursing home over death of Army veteran from coronavirus

Vincent Martin's death has raised questions of alleged misconduct.

ByStacy Chen
May 31, 2020, 6:33 AM

A grieving family has filed a lawsuit against Hollywood Premier Healthcare Center, a skilled nursing home in California, after their loved one died from COVID-19.

Vincent Martin, an 84-year-old Army veteran, died on April 4 and his daughters, Elizabeth Gagliano and Kathryn Sessinghaus, and his wife, Emma Martin, are alleging in a lawsuit that the facility mishandled the novel coronavirus outbreak, leading to Martin's death.

With at least 16 residents dead, 72 positive cases among residents and 37 cases among staff, the facility, formerly known as Serrano North Convalescent Hospital, has become one of the worst-hit nursing homes in the country as the pandemic continued to spread.

Sessinghaus, who last visited her father on Feb. 29, says she was told the facility was closing its doors to visitors the first week of March due to COVID-19. In her lawsuit, Sessinghaus alleges she did not observe the staff wearing personal protective equipment during her final visit with her father. According to the complaint, Sessinghaus continued to drop off care packages afterward and was alarmed when she was met by staff members at the door who took the items, but weren’t wearing masks.

"That really concerned me at that point because now we're in mid-March and things are effectively shutting down," Sessinghaus said.

PHOTO: Vincent Martin at Hollywood Premier Healthcare Center in Hollywood, Calif., in 2019. Martin, 84, died of COVID-19 on April 4.
Vincent Martin at Hollywood Premier Healthcare Center in Hollywood, Calif., in 2019. Martin, 84, died of COVID-19 on April 4.
Courtesy Martin family

The family alleges it wasn't notified of Martin being sick until April 1. According to the complaint, a nurse told the family he wasn't eating or drinking, was running a low fever and had a slight breathing problem.

Sessinghaus alleges she asked at that point if the facility had any positive COVID-19 cases, and claims the nurse she spoke to hesitantly told her they had at least one case before admitting there were actually four active cases in the facility.

The lawsuit filed by the family with the Superior Court of the State of California accuses the nursing home of negligence, wrongful death, violations of the Elder and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act, fraudulent concealment and fraudulent misrepresentation. The lawsuit also claims there has been a "long-standing practice of keeping the nursing home understaffed and skirting safety and infection controls."

In 2019, the facility was cited for infection protocol failures and lack of appropriate personal protective equipment, according to the California Department of Health and Human Services.

Martin had been under the care of the facility since 2014 due to physical disabilities and was described by his family as a sweet and quiet person with a passion for painting and history.

"He was so proud of his family, he just loved his children and grandchildren so much," Sessinghaus told ABC News.

PHOTO: Vincent Martin at Hollywood Premier Healthcare Center in Hollywood, Calif., in 2015. Martin died of COVID-19 on April 4.
Vincent Martin at Hollywood Premier Healthcare Center in Hollywood, Calif., in 2015. Martin died of COVID-19 on April 4.
Courtesy Martin family

When Martin fell ill, he wasn't given a COVID-19 test until the family specifically asked for it, they say, and first had to wait for approval from the facility's doctor. His results came back positive a day after he died, his relatives told ABC News.

The family alleges their struggles didn't stop there. According to the lawsuit, after Martin's death, the facility's doctor failed to mention coronavirus on Martin's death certificate and the funeral home said it was not notified that Martin tested positive for the virus.

Although HPHC did not respond to a request from ABC News on the lawsuit, it issued a statement Friday saying that it was dedicated as a COVID-19 facility by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and is complying with local and state health department guidelines.

"Due to government privacy requirements, we cannot divulge specific information about the individuals who have confirmed or suspected COVID-19, unless they are your family member and you have the necessary permissions to receive such information. We know you are concerned about your loved one, but it is crucial that we restrict visitation to reduce the spread of this virus to others. We will contact you directly if your loved one is suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19," the statement said.

The law firm representing the Martin family has sent a request to District Attorney Jackie Lacey to open a criminal investigation in regards to HPHC's alleged conduct.

Sessinghaus said the family spoke up in hopes this situation wouldn't happen again.

"In order to make things right you have to get out of your comfort zone and hope you can make a difference," she said.

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