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State settles lawsuit over COVID-19 death in Truth or Consequences veterans' home

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 9/27/2022

Sep. 28—The wife of a Vietnam War veteran who died after contracting COVID-19 at the problem-plagued New Mexico State Veterans' Home in Truth or Consequences has received a $300,000 settlement to resolve a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the state Department of Health.

Barbara Widener, whose husband of 54 years, Rickey Lee Widener, died at the department-operated facility Dec. 3, 2020, alleged medical negligence in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit cited a report issued less than a week after the 75-year-old Ruidoso man's death that found the facility wasn't following coronavirus-safe protocols.

"During a [Department of Health] survey of the Facility, it was found to be in non-compliance with applicable rules, regulations and policies and procedures regarding Covid, causing a finding of 'immediate jeopardy' to be called on" Dec. 9, 2020, the lawsuit said.

Immediate jeopardy in the context of a hospital, nursing home or similar facility means it "has been determined to represent an immediate risk of serious injury or death to its patients/residents," suit said.

According to the lawsuit, the survey's findings of noncompliance included a coronavirus-positive employee who was allowed to provide care to residents with confirmed cases and those who hadn't tested positive, "including allowing the staff member to hand out food trays and assist in transferring residents from unit to unit."

"As a proximate result of the medical negligence of the Defendants, jointly and severally, Plaintiff Barbara Widener has been damaged in that the spousal relationship between Plaintiff and her husband has been severed," the lawsuit stated. "Such severance of their spousal relationship has deprived Plaintiff of the love, affection, solace, comfort, emotional support, companionship, society, assistance and sexual relations she would have received had her husband lived."

The lawsuit, filed a little over a year ago in the First Judicial District Court, named the veterans home, the Department of Health and the state of New Mexico as defendants.

Barbara Widener's attorney, Adam Daniel Rafkin of Ruidoso, declined a request for an interview Tuesday.

The report cited lapses in infection-control measures that "placed residents in immediate jeopardy," such as staff not wearing face masks in patient care wards, among other deficiencies.

News of the settlement comes after lawmakers received a report last week asserting the "quality of patient care and oversight ... is of particular concern" at the veterans home, which is currently housed in a Depression-era building designed to serve as a children's hospital.

The state recently broke ground on a new veterans home near the site of the current facility. Plans call for the construction of six new buildings, each with 12 private rooms with individual bathrooms and a common kitchen and communal room area. The new layout, advocates say, will seem more like a home to veterans and help cut down on the spread of infectious diseases.

Rickey Lee Widener is among dozens of veterans in the facility who died after contracting COVID-19.

During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, 37 veterans in the home died from the illness.

Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, wrote in an email there is one other lawsuit involving COVID-19 at the State Veterans' Home that remains unsettled.

Asked whether the $300,000 settlement with Barbara Widener would set a precedent for future lawsuits, McGinnis Porter said the department doesn't comment on pending legal matters.

Rickey Lee Widener was a father of three and grandfather of five.

"He was a member of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church of Ruidoso," according to his obituary. "He enjoyed NASCAR, classic cars, and most importantly his beloved family. Rickey was a proud veteran of the United States Navy and served in the Vietnam War."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.


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