Family sues over bridge suicide

A makeshift memorial under the Astoria Bridge honored Carrie Barnhart, who committed suicide in April 2015.

The family of a suicidal woman who heard voices that told her to jump off the Astoria Bridge has filed a $950,000 medical malpractice lawsuit against Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, alleging negligence in her mental health treatment.

Carrie Barnhart, 54, who had symptoms of schizophrenia and depression, jumped to her death in April 2015. Her family claims Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, the county’s mental health contractor, failed to provide an adequate treatment and recovery plan despite Barnhart’s repeated suicide attempts.

The lawsuit alleges that Clatsop County did not act on complaints about the mental health agency’s poor performance in the months before Barnhart’s death. The suit also names Columbia Memorial Hospital and an emergency room doctor who treated Barnhart before her suicide.

“My heart grieves for anyone who loses a family member to suicide,” Amy Baker, the executive director of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, said in an email. “As a general rule, we don’t comment on pending litigation and (at) this point, I certainly can’t comment until I know more.”

The county and Columbia Memorial Hospital also declined to comment.

Barnhart’s suicide was the catalyst for change at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare. Her death was documented by The Daily Astorian and prompted a county conversation about gaps in the mental health safety net. An internal investigation and an Oregon Health Authority review described management and operational dysfunction at the mental health agency. Former staffers filed federal lawsuits alleging that managers engaged in discrimination and retaliation. Three top administrators eventually resigned.

Baker, who was brought in last June to stabilize Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, has stressed crisis intervention.

Barnhart’s family issued a tort claim notice in October 2015, a preview of the lawsuit filed Saturday in Circuit Court. Jeremiah Ross, a Portland attorney, is representing Artanya Barnhart, Barnhart’s daughter, who is in charge of her mother’s estate.

“CBH failed the community, my client’s family and Carrie Barnhart,” Ross said. “They were paid by the county to do a job and, simply put, they didn’t do it.”

The lawsuit contends the county was warned about deficiencies at Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare prior to Barnhart’s death.

In fall 2014, the state identified shortcomings at the mental health agency and ordered corrective action. Emails obtained by The Daily Astorian from early 2015 showed that county administrators were aware of grave concerns in the social-service community about the quality of care. One frustrated email after a young man killed himself warned that “suicide should not be the inevitable outcome because you have a mental illness.”

Barnhart’s spiral during the last few months of her life unnerved Astoria Police, who responded to her suicide threats four times between January and April 2015.

Police pulled her off the bridge after midnight in April 2015 and brought her to Columbia Memorial, where she was evaluated by a mental health crisis worker and a doctor and released after a few hours. She jumped off the bridge a week later.

The lawsuit claims Barnhart’s case manager at the mental health agency failed to have any meaningful contact with her as her mental health deteriorated. The suit faults the mental health agency and the county for hiring a case manager without proper experience to treat the mentally ill and for failing to adequately train the case manager to perform the sensitive job.

The lawsuit alleges the hospital and emergency room doctor were negligent for failing to recognize Barnhart was a serious suicide risk and releasing her back home, within walking distance of the bridge, without sufficient safeguards in place.

County Manager Cameron Moore took steps to ensure greater oversight of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare after he was hired last year. “I think we’ve tried to turn things in a more positive direction, but I certainly think there’s still work to be done,” he said.

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