'It was ruining her life'

Widow settles suit with county

(Published October. 4, 2006, 8:38 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

It's case closed in a civil suit that had Walworth County seeking $5,000 from a widow whose husband died accidentally in the county-run nursing home.

Marion Barker, 88, agreed to pay $2,000 for an alleged overdue payment for her husband's final month-plus of care at Lakeland Health Care Center. The county accepted her offer Sept. 22.

Brent Barker died in July 4, 2000, after tripping over another patient in a hallway and falling onto a box fan and other things. Friends told Marion Barker to sue the county for wrongful death, but she opted not to.

Six years after that incident, and three years after Barker's statute of limitations to sue ran out, Walworth County sent Marion a bill that she says she was never told of.

The county reduced the claim to $2,500 after the lawsuit hit newsstands, but Barker, formerly of East Troy, still thought that was too much.

The settlement for $2,000 is good enough because it makes a bad situation for Barker go away, said Laurie Engen, her daughter.

"She felt better right away," Engen said. "The feeling is that she's being seen as someone who took off on a bill, and that wasn't the case. This was a very nasty thing that I don't think should have happened."

Walworth County officials say the suit was warranted because there was a paper trail indicating Barker owed the money.

The corporation counsel office, which handles collection of past-due payments, was overworked and understaffed and the bill stood untouched for years, said Assistant Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter.

"It was a frustration the (Lakeland) Board (of Trustees) had and the nursing home had," Cotter said. "So many things got back burnered."

The county hired an outside attorney to try to collect on Barker's and other bills. It likely was cheaper to accept the $2,000 offer than fight the suit, Cotter said.

Walworth County did not knowingly sit on the bill and wait to try to collect only after Barker could no longer sue, Cotter said.

"If that was the case, then we would have filed as soon as the statute of limitations ran out," Cotter said.

Engen didn't know what to make of the county's procedures.

"It's hard to assign really bad motives to people," she said. "I don't believe the county board would make a decision like that, but if they did, they'd be a really horrible bunch of people.

"Maybe it did get put away for a few years and then got found. And maybe somebody said, 'Let not do anything with that (bill) for a while.'"

She said a six-year delay to send a bill to anybody was poor business practices, short-staffed or not.

"Six years? I'd understand if it had been six months, but six years? That's bad business," Engen said.

"Everybody else got a bill who owed money, but we didn't. So why not? Why not in September, or October, or November, or December?"

Whatever the case, Engen is just glad the situation is over for her mother.

"It's worth it to her to be done with it because it was ruining her life. It was ruining the quality of her life."

 

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