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Trial begins in drowning at state nursing facility

Wed., May 13, 2009

Kathleen Smith, who was developmentally disabled, and care provider Michael Noland had a special relationship at the state-run Lakeland Village Nursing Facility in Medical Lake.

Smith shared dinner with Noland and his wife at their home. “He took her to get ice cream. He would sing Ms. Smith to sleep every night. He adored her, and she adored him,” Assistant Public Defender Steve Heintz said Tuesday. “This was more than a client. This was a friend.”

Now Noland, 49, faces manslaughter charges in his friend’s death in a trial that began Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Greg Sypolt.

Noland left Smith’s side March 21, 2006, while she was bathing. An autopsy showed that Smith, 52, had a seizure and drowned while Noland, a Lakeland Village attendant, was talking to another employee.

Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Patrick Johnson charged Noland with second-degree manslaughter. Johnson is also seeking aggravating factors – because Smith was extremely vulnerable and placed in Noland’s trust – which could result in a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Heintz blamed state officials for Noland’s death. The facility is operated by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.

Federal guidelines call for having one staff member for every three patients. On the day Smith died, Noland started his shift caring for four patients. Later the same day, the staffing level had dropped to one staff member for six patients, Heintz said.

“Management knew the understaffing caused safety issues … and they didn’t do anything about it,” Heintz said. “It was an impossible situation. A great tragedy occurred … but Mr. Noland did not commit a crime.”

Lakeland Village provides rehabilitation with the goal that its patients become independent enough to care for themselves.

According to court records, Noland helped Smith prepare for the bath and then left her alone despite a policy requiring employees to visually supervise Smith within an arm’s-length while she bathed.

“At one point, Kathleen Smith told Noland she was ready to get out of the bath, and Noland advised her to get out if finished,” Medical Lake police Officer Ian Hays wrote in court records. “Noland did not assist Smith in exiting the bathtub.”

Heintz said Smith previously had no trouble getting out of the bathtub.

Reporter Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509)459-5495 or at tomc@spokesman.com.


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