Veteran sues over 2011 attack at VA hospital
An Army veteran undergoing treatment in an Alabama VA hospital for substance abuse and mental health issues was attacked and beaten by a fellow patient in 2011 and is suing the federal government for negligence.
Lori Coltharp alleges that the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System knew of her attacker's violent history and did not provide adequate security at the VA hospital in Tuskegee.
VA officials granted Coltharp disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack, according to VA records filed in court along with her lawsuit.
Coltharp, 38, no longer lives in Alabama and did not want to disclose her whereabouts for fear her assailant would track her down.
"There are times when I looked at my family and said, 'I wish he would have killed me.' It's been that hard trying to deal with it," Coltharp said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
There is a growing national scandal over inadequate patient care at VA facilities, which has led to the departure of the VA secretary. CAVHCS is already under federal investigation for making veterans wait too long to receive medical care and trying to cover up the wait times.
Coltharp's case raises questions about security, especially in residential programs for veterans getting mental health or substance abuse treatment.
A court ultimately will decide whether the VA is legally at fault for not preventing the patient-on-patient attack that sent Coltharp to the emergency room with head wounds three years ago last week.
But in December 2012, the VA determined that her PTSD was service-connected "due to the negligence of the VA staff to permit a suspect(ed) violent offender (to) participate in the (substance abuse) program, and the medical opinion provided by your VA examiner," according to the rating decision issued by the VA.
Coltharp sued in federal court after the VA denied her administrative claims.
The VA's review of her claims "revealed no evidence of any neglect or wrongful act or omission on the part of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee," the VA assistant general counsel wrote in October.
"While we certainly regret the incident, considering the narrow parameters under which a hospital can be held liable for the criminal acts of a third party ... no VA liability is found," the VA lawyer wrote to Coltharp's attorney, Gary Atchison of Montgomery.
CAVHCS Director James Talton said Tuesday that VA lawyers were handling Coltharp's case and he couldn't comment on the incident, which happened before he became director.
Coltharp filed a federal lawsuit in Montgomery in April, and amended the complaint last week.
She had been a hospital patient at CAVHCS in Tuskegee for about eight months when the attack occurred. She continues to be treated at VA facilities close to her home and struggles with drug abuse, but said she would never return to the VA in Central Alabama.
"I can't go back there," she said.
Atchison, her attorney, said Coltharp was making progress under the VA's care in Tuskegee and that her lawsuit, which seeks $2.7 million in damages, is about patient security. Coltharp said she hopes her case can lead to improvements that protect future female veterans.
Coltharp spent one year in the Army as a military police officer. She was stationed in Hawaii and left the Army after she got pregnant and became a single parent.
Around the time of her attack, the VA was already facing criticism for several assaults at medical facilities around the country. A Government Accountability Office report in 2011 found 284 cases of alleged, attempted or confirmed sex assaults at VA medical facilities from 2007-2010.
The auditors blamed weak security, too few VA police and no system for identifying patients who could be violent. The VA concurred with the recommendations to address the problem, including more accurate reporting of incidents to senior leaders.
Coltharp's lawsuit is against the United States. The U.S. attorney's office in Montgomery is to file its written response to her allegations later this month. The case was recently assigned to U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.
Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, has been investigating complaints about CAVHCS and is aware of the attack and the lawsuit, said her spokesman, Todd Stacy.
"Since our office has been digging deeper into the problems in Central Alabama, many whistleblowers, veterans, and veteran family members have come forward with stories of abuse and mismanagement," he said. "There is more to this story, and Rep. Roby is working to ensure those responsible for malfeasance and neglect are held accountable."