Md. seeks to end suit over death Family wants millions

woman died in state mental hospital

March 17, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

She might have been murdered. Or killed herself. Or died accidentally.

However it happened, Soo-Jung Kong, 34, died on the night of Dec. 10, 1994, of a blow to the head. She was a patient at Crownsville Hospital Center, a 250-bed state mental hospital near Annapolis, involuntarily committed and demanding to go home.

Today, an Anne Arundel County circuit judge is scheduled to hear a request from the state to end a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by her grieving parents that is scheduled for trial at the end of the month. They have spurned attempts to settle. The state had a $50,000 liability limit in 1994, although the Board of Public Works may approve higher settlements.

But money isn't the issue. Chong Sun Kong, 78, and Yon Hyo C. Kong, 72, might never know how the youngest of their seven children died. But the South Korean immigrants to Vienna, Va., ++ say her death should not have happened.

"I want to have my say in court," Yon Hyo Kong said through an interpreter. "They imprisoned her in a madhouse, and they killed her."

How sick the schizophrenic Soo-Jung Kong was, how much of a danger to herself or others she was and whether she was preyed upon by another violent patient remain unanswered.

"If it is suicide, it is terrible. If it is homicide, it is terrible. But for the hospital to deny liability, that is terrible," said Sunwoo Nam, the Kongs' attorney.

Officials at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which operates the hospital, declined to discuss the case.

The Kongs say their pleas to take their daughter home were met by hospital officials saying she needed care only a hospital could provide. Her family also needed a better understanding of her illness, according to court papers.

The state contends that an autopsy and a Maryland State Police investigation point to a self-inflicted fatal wound, probably accidental. Kong was known to jump off furniture and leap onto a window sill habitually, and might have banged her head doing that, the state says.

Her parents wonder whether another patient killed their daughter, something police nearly ruled out in a report Dec. 26, 1995.

One of the four people in her room had pummeled her head with a sneaker Dec. 5, inflicting wounds that a medical examiner reported would not have caused her death nearly a week later.

The other patient had threatened her and taunted her as she prayed, Yon Hyo Kong said.

Soo-Jung Kong, who was moved to a private area because of the attack, was returned to the communal room between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. the night of her death.

"Putting her back in the room with that woman was an invitation to kill her," Chong Sun Kong said.

Shortly after midnight, a nurse checking Soo-Jung Kong in her bed found her not breathing and without a pulse. She was pronounced dead at Anne Arundel Medical Center at 1: 26 a.m. Dec. 11.

The medical examiner said that whatever happened took place in the private room in the hours before Soo-Jung Kong's death.

When she was returned to the communal room, "It was noted by the staff that the deceased was unusually drowsy at this time," according to an autopsy conducted Jan. 2, 1995.

Public defenders say some patients told them Soo-Jung Kong was causing trouble the day of her death.

Soo-Jung Kong, who planned to pursue graduate studies in chemistry after improving her English, had a history of mental illness.

About 5 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1994, Maryland State Police removed Soo-Jung Kong from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. According to a police report, she was preparing to dive into the Potomac River. She was admitted involuntarily to Crownsville the next day.

It was at least her fourth hospitalization for mental illness. Her family described bizarre behavior brought on by a 1993 break-up with a boyfriend she had met through personals advertisements in a Korean-language newspaper.

During the break-up, he broke her eardrum, she flew into a window-breaking rage against a minister who vouched for the boyfriend's good name, and she smashed her car into her ex-boyfriend's restaurant, the Kongs said.

Crownsville staff members put her under close observation because of unpredictable behavior.

As she improved in the hospital, she insisted on leaving. Once, she became so upset about not being allowed to go home that she threw a fishbowl, her parents said.

A day before her death, she told her parents she had put the breakup behind her.

Her father, well-known in the Washington Korean community, makes donations from his salary as a school custodian in Fairfax County to the Yuk Young Foundation, the South Korean charity to which she used to send money.

"I don't have the heart to tell them she died," he said. "I will donate substantial money from the lawsuit" to the foundation and "then I will tell them."

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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