Controversial death prompts hospital policy changes

Published: Sep. 7, 2012 at 3:10 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2012 at 3:11 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - After the controversial death of Kelly Brinson, a 45-year-old mental health patient, University Health has changed the way it handles aggressive patients receiving psychiatric services.

A lawsuit filed against University Hospital was just settled in late August. Meanwhile, since Brinson's death in 2010, University Hospital has moved their in-patient psychiatric services to Deaconness. According to their plan of correction, they hire their own specially trained non-police security force for those patients and have re-evaluated the policy on taser use.

The settlement between the hospital and Brinson's estate also creates an advisory panel that includes mental health professionals to help prevent a tragedy like Brinson's death from ever happening again.

Brinson died in 2010 after he was tased and restrained by University of Cincinnati Police inside of University Hospital.

In our ongoing effort to tell all sides of the story, FOX19 reached out to University Hospital and the University of Cincinnati Police Department. UC Police did not have any comment, but UC Health did release this statement:

We've worked closely with the Ohio Department of Mental Health to ensure the appropriate changes were made to our security policies and are confident that those changes will enable us to serve the community better.

Lawyers and death records show Brinson suffered from paranoia, bi-polar disorder and delusions. A UC Hospital report says he had been aggressive toward other patients during his stay at the hospital in January of 2010, so medical staff ordered emergency medication and isolation.

Before getting to that room, UC Police alleged Brinson used his casted-hand to swing at an officer.

"Mr. Brinson was led into the room by two clinicians that had him calmed down. They were prepared to leave the room. That should have ended it right there," said Attorney Al Gerhardstein.

Gerhardstein along with Attorney Don Moore, who hosts a show on FOX19, handled the case for Brinson's family.

"He's alone in a room, it's a safe room, there's nothing in it but a bed. They close the door and lock it, he's isolated from other patients, he's isolated from everyone and they've got a video camera to observe the patient to make sure the patient doesn't hurt themselves," said Moore.

But the hospital's summary sent to the Ohio Department of Mental Health, and obtained by FOX19, says police had 'determined to place the patient under arrest' on three charges including assault on a police officer.

"They sent a crowd of people in around a person who is paranoid, in a little room, and backed him into a corner," said Moore.

The family's lawyers argue no one should have been surprised that Brinson started making threats. "Mr. Brinson, for example, was fearing that he was going to be taken in chains to a slave… to a plantation. I mean, he was very focused on his experience as a black man with chains and they're running around with restraints in their hands so this fed his paranoia. This is all very predictable if you're in the mental health field and that's why clinicians have to stay in charge," argued Gerhardstein.

Once in the corner of the room, a video of the incident shows UC police began pointing tasers. At that point, the hospital documents, uncovered by FOX19, maintain Brinson lunged at an officer, but Brinson's lawyers deny that.

"The police were the ones that jumped him in a corner. They were in control at that time, but they also testified that, had the hospital people said 'stop', they would have stopped," said Moore.

Efforts to restrain Brinson did not stop. A report by UC police shows officers attempted to tase Brinson three times. "You don't use a strangle hold on them. You don't have a pile of people on them and then apply tasers," argued Moore.

The final restraints were being secured when Brinson stopped struggling, but something was wrong, Brinson was unresponsive. An officer began CPR and a crash cart was brought in, but it was too late. Doctors declared Brinson brain dead three days later.

"The problem with use of force on Mr. Brinson was poor training and poor policy that shifted all responsibility to the police way too early," said Gerhardstein.

Following his death, the Ohio Department of Mental Health placed the hospital's acute psychiatric inpatient unit on probation, questioning 'the intensity with which law enforcement took custody of the patient.'

The forensic pathologist's findings have only added more controversy to the case. The death record signed off on by former coroner Dr. O'Dell Owens cites natural causes with 'excited delirium' as the immediate cause of Kelly Brinson's death, and notes a history of cocaine dependence.

"People get very excited, people get very stressed when they are confronted with the police using force on them. If they are on illegal drugs, sometimes that can cause a cardiac arrest," said Gerhardstein.

"The only drugs in this guy's system were the drugs the hospital put there," said Moore.

His family's lawyers argue it wasn't excited delirium but an inappropriate use of excessive force that killed Brinson.

"It's not in a medical dictionary. It doesn't say 'cause of death: excited delirium', it said that on the coroner's statement in this case," said Moore.

"That is a catch phrase used to describe sudden death in the midst of police force," argued Gerhardstein.

But Gerhardstein says it's difficult to prove police are at fault.

"The courts give deference to police officers," he explained. "They have a hard job. They have to make decisions in a split second and they have to keep the peace. They have to protect themselves, protect citizens, and protect the suspect. But there are rules and they have to follow the rules."

In the end, this case never made it to a jury, the administrator's of Brinson's estate settled for an undisclosed amount of money, but attorneys argue the real victory is in the changes made by UC Health.

"When we step back from this case, what we've learned is the policies on dealing with patients like this need to keep the clinicians in charge. You can't turn it over to police because they do arrests and this didn't need an arrest," he said.

According to the Ohio Department of Mental Health, University Hospital is fully licensed to provide psychiatric services. After being placed on probation in February of 2010, the board reinstated the hospital's acute psychiatric inpatient unit license in May of that year. Following a routine survey, the hospital's plan of correction related to the environment of care is pending.