Lawsuit filed against Avalon in vets home COVID-19 death

  • Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

The family of a veteran who died from COVID-19 at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the facility’s management, Avalon Health Care Group.

The suit was filed Wednesday in Hilo Circuit Court on behalf of Noah Bennett-Drayer and Daniel Bennett-Drayer, sons of the late Chris Drayer.

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It alleges that Drayer, 70, of Volcano, died due to substandard care and nonexistent safety practices.

The suit names as defendants Avalon Health Care, several of its affiliates and Tina Irwin, Avalon’s regional vice president for Hawaii.

According to court documents, Drayer died Sept. 2 at the Hilo veterans home. He was a decorated and honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam and was awarded numerous medals and commendations for his service.

Drayer tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 28, but Noah Bennett-Drayer was not notified of the results until Aug. 31, the lawsuit states. Drayer’s family had planned to bring him home from the veterans home the week of his death.

Drayer is one of 27 virus-related deaths reported at the veterans home since an outbreak began there in late August.

The lawsuit highlights critical reports published in mid-September from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency that identified a number of factors that might have aided in the spread of COVID-19 throughout the facility.

“Chris Drayer did not deserve to die at Yukio. He died because Avalon failed to keep him safe,” Jeffrey Foster, attorney for the sons, said in a news release Wednesday. “It is beyond belief that nearly six months after the onset of the worst pandemics in 100 years, a facility caring for the most vulnerable members of our community could fail to practice the most basic of protections for its residents. What the Avalon companies have done at Yukio represents a systemic failure to institute and follow established policies, practices and procedures that care facilities around the country have utilized to protect vulnerable residents.”

The suit contends that Avalon owed a “duty of care” to Drayer and his sons, but breached that duty, which resulted in Drayer’s wrongful death. The suit seeks a jury trial, with damages to be proven at trial, as well as court costs.

When reached by phone, Foster declined further comment about the suit but said the ultimate goal is to “get these issues in front of a jury and let the jury decide whether Avalon did what they needed to do to protect the resident, and, if not, what kind of remedies they’ll be giving the families.”

He could not comment on any other potential lawsuits but said his firm is representing other families with ties to the veterans home.

“The health and safety of our residents is always our top priority,” Avalon spokeswoman Allison Griffiths said in an email when asked to comment on the suit. “While I cannot comment on individual cases due to privacy laws, we mourn every life that has been lost to this historic pandemic as our heroic health care workers continue to fight to save lives.”

Griffiths said last month, however, that the veterans home had more than 60% of the recommendations made by the VA in place at the time of its assessment. She also said Avalon was surprised by many of the VA’s findings about some of the practices the facility had in place, as well as the VA’s contention that there was little evidence of proactive COVID-19 planning.

An unannounced, “COVID-focused infection control survey” conducted by the Office of Health Care Assurance on June 23 found no deficiencies, Griffiths said previously.

It was announced last week that the East Hawaii Region of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which operates Hilo Medical Center, will take over operations and management of Yukio Okutsu from Avalon.

Yukio Okutsu is an HHSC facility, but Avalon has managed the veterans home since it opened in 2007. Seventy-one residents and 35 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the veterans home since the first cases were reported a little more than a month ago. One new fatality was reported Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, there were 48 resident at the facility, seven of whom were receiving care in a COVID-designated area and one who was hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center.

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Thirty-eight residents and 33 employees have recovered.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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