Family suing over woman's death after fall

The family of a woman who died days after falling outside her nursing home filed a lawsuit against the home and the transit system trusted with transporting her.

John M. Steiner / The Sun Tim Burchill, administrator of Ave Maria Village, stands Oct. 6 in the general area of where Lois Ulrich fell in 2008. She died eight days later. Ave Maria Village and James River Public Transit are being sued by Ulrich's family.

The family of a woman who died days after falling outside her nursing home filed a lawsuit against the home and the transit system trusted with transporting her.

James Ulrich, on behalf of the heirs-at-law of the late Lois Ulrich, his mother, is suing James River Public Transit and Ave Maria Village for wrongful death. The family claims the organizations owe them at least $100,000 in non-economic damages including loss of counseling and loss of a loved one as well as economic damages including medical and burial expenses.

An official from the nursing home calls the suit "frivolous" and a "slap in the face." Officials from the transit service aren't commenting, saying the suit is still under litigation.

A part of the James River Senior and Community Center, James River Transit provides Dial-A-Ride services for people of all ages. Many of its users are seniors or those with disabilities.

Ave Maria Village is a not-for-profit, faith-based care provider, owned by the Sisters of Mary of the Presentation in Valley City. Located in northeast Jamestown, Ave Maria has 100 beds and 65 beds are in its adjacent assisted-living facility, Heritage Centre of Jamestown.


Lois Ulrich died on Dec. 28, 2008, eight days after she fell out of her wheelchair and onto the sidewalk outside of Ave Maria on Dec. 20, according to a complaint filed in Southeast Judicial District Court in Jamestown.

The death has been difficult for her family, said Daniel Dunn, the Ulrich family's attorney. According to her 2008 obituary, her survivors include a daughter and seven sons.

Lois Ulrich, 67, left Ave Maria on Dec. 20 to play bingo at the Vet's Club, according to Tim Burchill, Ave Maria administrator. The James River Transit bus transported her to the gaming site and bar around noon and then back to the nursing home between 4:30 and 5 that evening, Burchill said.

The family alleges Ave Maria failed to clear the sidewalk of dangerous conditions like ice and snow. The family also accused the James River Transit employee of being "negligent and careless" and that the hip fracture Lois Ulrich suffered resulted in her death, according to the complaint.

A large proportion of fall deaths are due to complications following a hip fracture, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One out of five hip fracture patients die within a year of their injury, the CDC says.

Lois had diabetes, Dunn said, but her overall health was "doing fine" and she hadn't had trouble with her hip.

Dunn asked The Sun not to contact the Ulrich family for this story, saying attorneys for the defendants hadn't had an opportunity to depose Lois' sons and daughter yet and it would be unfair to that side.

Burchill said he's shared information about the case to his staff of about 180 and anyone else who's asked, saying he feels it's better to be open.


Burchill said he remembers Dec. 20, 2008, because he drove various staff members to work that day due to the weather.

The high temperature that day was 5 degrees with a low of 13 degrees below zero, according to records kept by the National Weather Service. Recorded snowfall was 0.1 inch. Peak winds were 38 miles per hour and blowing snow was reported, NWS said.

According to Ave Maria's records, a staff member had cleared the sidewalks about 90 minutes before Lois' fall, Burchill said.

At age 67, Lois was young for someone living in a nursing home. She'd lived there about seven or eight months, Burchill said, and moved in because of her health. An amputee, Lois was "confined to a wheelchair at all relevant times" the complaint said.

"That's young for nowadays. If I were her, I would be unhappy living in a nursing home too... so you know, I sympathize with that," Burchill said.

Burchill said Lois did not sign out when she left on Dec. 20, 2008, which is against Ave Maria's policy. Legally, the nursing home cannot prevent a person from leaving, Burchill said, although on a day with weather like Dec. 20, 2008, the staff would have likely discouraged someone in frail health from travel.

After her fall, Burchill said Lois initially refused to go to the hospital. She did go later that evening.

"She was very much in control of her own situation. She didn't want to go to the hospital at first," he said.


Lois originally received treatment at the former Jamestown Hospital "where she experienced extreme pain, emotional distress, and mental anguish as a direct and proximate result of the defendant's negligence," the complaint said. The allegation is directed at each defendant. Lois was later transferred to Medcenter One in Bismarck.

Each year, a typical nursing home with 100 beds reports 100 to 200 falls. Many falls go unreported, according to the CDC. Burchill said about 20-30 falls occur each month at Ave Maria. Most of them are minor and without injury, he said.

Since Lois' death three years ago, Ave Maria has replaced its sidewalks although that replacement was planned before her fall, Burchill said.

Burchill said Ave Maria provides good care based on feedback from residents and their families.

In February 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid gave Ave Maria Village a "below average" score of two stars in its five-star quality rating system. The rating system rates nursing homes based on health inspections, staffing and quality measures.

Burchill said the ratings are subjective and the CMS surveyor that year was especially critical. The home had received the five star "much above average quality" rating in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.

The nursing home had not been cited for any deficiencies from incidents reported by the nursing home or complaints in the last three years, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

Ave Maria operates at 99.5 percent occupancy, Burchill said, saying his staff provides quality care. Lois was expected to recover. Burchill said her family held her bed, expecting her to return to Ave Maria.


The lawsuit is a "slap in the face," Burchill said, because both Ave Maria and James River Transit are nonprofit organizations whose aim is "to take care of people in the way they deserve."

A jury trial is set for April 2012.

Sun reporter Katie Ryan-Anderson can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by email at kryan-anderson@

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