A lawsuit against Sonora Regional Medical Center by the family of a mentally ill woman who died nearly two years ago after walking away from the hospital will head to trial in March 2014.
The jury trial was scheduled at a case management conference in Tuolumne County Superior Court on March 28 - more than a year after the woman's family filed a notice of intent to sue.
The case spent several months in the pleading stage, in which the parties outlined their claims and defenses.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit - Robin and Lizabeth Chadwick, Judith Dusseau, Patricia Van Sickle and Diane Ellen Smith - are all sisters of the deceased woman, Marlo Chadwick.
They alleged the hospital failed to confine Chadwick, who left the facility hours after being placed on involuntary psychiatric hold.
They also alleged that the hospital knew about her departure within minutes and failed to notify them or any other family members.
In a motion hearing also held March 28, Judge Donald Segerstrom consolidated the case with another lawsuit by the family against a formerSonora doctor, Stacey Hoffmann.
The Chadwick family served Hoffmann with a notice of intent to sue on May 17, 2012 - about four months after taking preliminary steps to sue the hospital - alleging that Hoffmann failed to properly medicate and monitor Chadwick's mental illness, according to court documents.
Hoffmann's medical license is suspended due to convictions of driving under the influence of alcohol in 2008 and 2010, the Medical Board of California website showed.
In February 2012, she pleaded guilty in Tuolumne County Superior Court to practicing medicine while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and prescribing herself drugs, according to court records.
According to the second amended complaint, Chadwick was intermittently evaluated and treated at Sonora Regional Medical Center from June 2009 to June 2011.
On June 30, 2011, after being taken to the hospital by Lizabeth and Robin Chadwick for not taking anti-psychotic medication, Marlo Chadwick was diagnosed in the emergency department as gravely disabled and suffering from depression and psychotic disorder, the complaint said.
The hospital told the family it would transfer Chadwick to an inpatient psychiatric facility the next morning, according to the complaint.
About 1:47 a.m. July 1, Chadwick walked away from the hospital. The complaint alleged that the hospital reported her as a missing person to police that day and never followed up or contacted Chadwick's family.
The plaintiffs said they became aware of the disappearance on July 19, when Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office contacted Robin Chadwick about a missing person's report.
Marlo Chadwick was found dead on Aug. 7 in a field near Highway 108, about a mile from the hospital. An autopsy was conducted but determined no cause of death because Chadwick's body was severely decomposed, according to court documents.
The sisters are seeking more than $25,000 in non-economic damages from the hospital for "being deprived of the love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, affection, society and moral support" of Chadwick. The Superior Court level sets the minimum for non-economic damages at $25,000.
The plaintiffs are also seeking economic damages for expenses such as Chadwick's funeral and burial.
Sonora Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Gail Witzlsteiner said she couldn't comment on the case.
Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Director Rita Austin said the hospital is following the law, as far as it allows SRMC to hold patients.
"If I felt they weren't providing a service to the people that we serve, certainly we would be talking to each other," Austin said. "We have a good relationship."
Austin suspects more mentally ill people are walking away from psychiatric hold because the county no longer has a designated inpatient facility, which, unlike the hospital, could lock people inside. The inpatient hospital was closed in 2008 as part of the dismantling of Tuolumne General Hospital started in 2007.
Austin said the county is "too small" to sustain such a facility.
Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele said his office, the Sonora Police Department, the hospital and Behavioral Health have improved communication since the incident. They meet quarterly and discuss concerns, he said.
"We have a very good working relationship," he said. "This is just an unfortunate incident that took place. We're in the business of helping people ... we don't want anybody to get hurt."
A settlement conference is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Feb. 6, 2014, in Tuolumne County Superior Court.
The 10-day trial is scheduled for March 3 at 8 a.m.