State fined $500k for man’s overdose at treatment center

lbonner@newsobserver.comNovember 8, 2013 

Jeffrey S. Harbin checked himself in to a state drug treatment center to break his addiction. He was dead days later, poisoned by methadone at the R. J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner.

More than four years after his August 2009 death, the N.C. Industrial Commission this week award Harbin’s parents $527,946 in damages, including medical and funeral expenses.

In the course of Industrial Commission’s case, the state admitted it was liable for damages, but wanted commissioners to take into account that the 42-year-old Harbin had used drugs since he was a teenager and that his previous attempts to beat his addictions had failed. The state also wanted the commission to consider that Harbin “was deceptive to Blackley staff” when he was admitted, saying a chief complaint was “withdrawal from heroin.” Results of a later urine test showed no heroin.

R. J. Blackley is run by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Appeals of the Industrial Commission decision are still possible. A lawsuit in trial court against two doctors and a nurse who treated Harbin is on hold.

The assistant Attorney General handling the Industrial Commission case could not be reached Friday.

Through the years, Donna Shelton, Harbin’s mother, said she felt the state didn’t take her son’s death seriously.

“It’s been the worse thing I’ve ever been through,” said Shelton, who lives in South Carolina. “They won’t even face me. They never even said they were sorry.”

G. Christopher Olson, Shelton’s lawyer, said Friday that his client was pleased with the public acknowledgment that what happened to her son was wrong.

“It means so much to her and the family after they couldn’t get any explanation from DHHS as to why he died at the facility,” Olson said.

According to Industrial Commission documents in the case, the 42-year-old Harbin checked himself into R.J. Blackley on Aug. 12, 2009, asking for help getting off drugs and with heroin withdrawal.

Harbin’s father drove him to the center, and his mother talked to him before he was admitted and while he was there. Harbin had been living in Alamance County with his grandmother.

“He called me and told me that he was trying real hard,” Shelton said. “He thought this was going to do it. When he called, he acted like the were going to help him, and then they killed him.”

Dr. Lance Fuller ordered a urine test the afternoon Harbin was admitted to see what he was using. About three hours later, and without having the drug test results, staff gave him methadone. Methadone is a synthetic opiate used to help weaken symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

Harbin was showing mild withdrawal symptoms.

On Aug. 13, still without knowing the results of the drug screen, Dr. Michael Washo changed the order to give Harbin higher and more frequent doses of methadone. According to the Industrial Commission findings, Harbin received 150 percent of the maximum dose over 13 hours, and double the maximum over 27 hours.

A check of his pulse at about 8 p.m. Aug. 13 found that it had slowed to 52 beats per minute, down from 100 beats per minute about 2 1/2 hours earlier.

Without checking Harbin’s vital signs or checking for signs of withdrawal, the staff gave him another dose of methadone at about 9:24 p.m. Aug. 13. He was found slumped over in a Blackley bathroom at about midnight and died at Durham Regional Hospital on Aug. 15.

Washo didn’t check the drug test until after Harbin collapsed, according to the Industrial Commission findings. When he did check the test, Washo learned Harbin didn’t have any heroin in his system. Harbin shouldn’t have been given methadone at all. The test was “positive high” for cocaine and “positive high” for methadone.

The state medical examiner concluded that toxic levels of cocaine and methadone stopped Harbin’s heart.

After a 2010 federal investigation concluded that Blackley did not know how to safely administer methadone, the center agreed to stop using it for heroin withdrawal.

Fuller is no longer employed by the state, but Washo continues as a state employee. He practices addiction medicine at R. J. Blackley, according to his N.C. Medical Board license information.

A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services on Friday said the agency would not comment on Washo’s employment. “I don’t have the details, but even if I did, I can’t comment on confidential personnel matters,” Ricky Diaz said in a statement.

The Industrial Commission awarded damages for wrongful death, including $200,000 to each of Harbin’s parents, $100,000 for pain and suffering, medical expenses and funeral expenses. The award is $100,000 lower than a deputy commissioner recommended earlier this year.

Shelton’s voice waivers when she talks about her son and how he died.

“It’ll never go away,” she said. “They say you can’t put money on somebody’s life, but maybe you can make those people wake up.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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