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West Duluth's Wesley Residence settles wrongful death suit

Dale Gerard (second from left) is pictured with her sons Kelly (left), Matt and Mark. Photo courtesy Mark Gerard

A West Duluth assisted living facility has settled the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a 74-year-old resident who died after wandering away from the care center in 2013.

The Wesley Residence and parent company At Home Living Facilities of Hermantown last month resolved the civil suit brought in February 2016 by Mark Gerard. The disappearance of his dementia-stricken mother, Dale Gerard, set off months of searches before her body was found nine months later in the Lincoln Park area.

The case had been set to go to trial before a Duluth jury this week.

A judge earlier this year ruled that Gerard's death came as a direct result of leaving Wesley, and the facility subsequently acknowledged liability for her death. The jury only would have been left to determine monetary damages owed to the Gerard family.

The terms of the settlement agreement are confidential, which is typical in civil cases. But Andrew Gross, a Twin Cities attorney representing the Gerards, said it was an "amicable resolution."

"When the family came to us, what they wanted was for the facility to accept responsibility and didn't want this to go ignored," Gross told the News Tribune. "They wanted to feel that they were pursuing justice and not have this forgotten. Through what we've accomplished here, we've achieved those goals."

Representatives of Wesley have never spoken publicly about the lawsuit, and attorney Robyn Johnson did not return a call seeking comment on the settlement.

Gerard, who suffered from a number of physical and mental health disorders, disappeared from the facility at 5601 Grand Ave. on July 20, 2013. Family members and local authorities asked for the public's help in locating her, but efforts were unsuccessful for several months.

Gerard's body finally was found on April 15, 2014, in an area along Piedmont Avenue, about three miles from her home. The suit indicated that her "mummified " body was caught in a chain-link fence.

Dale Gerard

The complaint said Gerard required care for "wandering, orientation issues, anxiety, verbal aggression, physical aggression, repetitive behavior, agitation, self-injurious behavior and property destruction."

In response to safety concerns raised by the family, the facility established a "service plan," which stated that she was "to be confined to Wesley unless accompanied by family or staff," according to the complaint.

In addition, the family purchased a "WanderGuard" bracelet that would alert staff if she tried to leave through an exit equipped with proper technology. However, the system was ineffective because not all doors were linked to the technology, and Gerard learned how to disable the bracelet, the suit said. The bracelet was still on Gerard's ankle when her remains were found.

A Wesley Residence employee reported to the Minnesota Department of Health in a subsequent investigation that the WanderGuard system created a "false confidence" for family members. She said the facility had received a quote for "thousands of dollars" to fully implement the system, but had not done so.

The health department, however, did not issue any sanctions against Wesley Residence, finding that Gerard was her "own guardian" and that it was "unclear how and why the client left against medical and family advice."

Gross said a goal of the lawsuit was to ensure that other families do not face similar situations when they put a loved one in a care center. His law firm, Kosieradzki Smith, specializes in cases involving nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Those industries are expected to grow significantly in the coming years and decades with the aging of the baby boomer generation. The population aged 65 and older is expected to nearly double by 2050, according to U.S. Census projections.

"It's important that people of Duluth know what's going on in these facilities," Gross said. "The more that people know, the more that people are paying attention, the more that we can actually implement policies to prevent this from happening in the future."

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