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Negron v. Snoqualmie Valley Hospital

May 5, 1997

KATHLEEN NEGRON AND RAFAEL NEGRON, HUSBAND AND WIFE AND THEIR MARITAL COMMUNITY, APPELLANTS,
v.
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY HOSPITAL AND OVERLAKE HOSPITAL, RESPONDENTS.



Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 94-2-05295-1. Date filed: 03/17/95. Judge signing: Hon. John M. Darrah.

Authored by Mary K. Becker. Concurring: H. Joseph Coleman, Ann L. Ellington.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Becker

BECKER, J. -- Kathleen and Rafael Negron, who are deaf, appeal the dismissal of their discrimination claims on summary judgment. We reverse and remand for trial.

Under the Washington Law Against Discrimination it is a civil right to be free from discrimination in public accommodations based on a sensory disability. *fn1 Discrimination in a place of public accommodation is actionable. *fn2 A prima facie claim requires four elements: (1) plaintiff has a disability; (2) defendant's establishment is a place of public accommodation; (3) defendant discriminated against plaintiff by providing treatment that was not comparable to the level of designated services provided to individuals without disabilities; and (4) the disability was a substantial factor causing the discrimination. *fn3

Overlake concedes the Negrons each have a disability, and the hospital is a place of public accommodation. The third element -- whether there was discrimination -- is at issue in this appeal. Overlake's motion for summary judgment asked the court to rule as a matter of law that the hospital had reasonably accommodated the Negrons' disability and therefore did not discriminate.

Because this is an appeal from a summary judgment, this court engages in de novo review. *fn4 The documentary evidence considered by the court, viewed in the light most favorable to the Negrons, establishes the following as the basis for their claim.

Plaintiff Kathleen Negron and her husband both use American Sign Language as their primary means of communication. Mr. Negron understands very little written English because his second language is Spanish.

On March 5, 1991, Ms. Negron arrived at Snoqualmie Valley Hospital with severe pneumonia and possible sepsis (pathogenic microorganisms in the blood). After consulting a pulmonary specialist, Ms. Negron's personal physician decided to transfer her immediately to Overlake Hospital.

By the time she arrived at Overlake, Ms. Negron was mentally confused, and her physical condition had deteriorated to the point that she almost died. She was apparently still able to move, though, because she attempted to remove some catheters. Hospital staff restrained Ms. Negron's hands, thereby eliminating a possible means of communication.

Overlake Hospital is a member of the Seattle Area Hospital Council which at the time of Ms. Negron's hospitalization had a contract with the Community Service Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Under the contract, the Center for the Deaf provides interpretive services to council hospitals for scheduled appointments or emergencies. In the afternoon of March 5, the day Ms. Negron was admitted, Overlake called the Center to request an interpreter. No one answered. The caller left a message. The message was a non-emergency request for an interpreter to be provided the next day. Overlake called the Center a second time, but again received no answer. At 4:30 that afternoon, the Center returned Overlake's call and said that no interpreter was available until 7:00 the next morning. Overlake did not call the emergency number at the Center, which could have dispatched an interpreter immediately. Nor did Overlake indicate in the messages that an emergency interpreter was needed.

Fortunately, Ms. Negron's condition improved. The next morning, March 6th, and occasionally throughout her two-week stay at Overlake, the hospital provided a sign language interpreter. The presence of the interpreter, however, did not always coincide with the presence of a physician.

After her release, Ms. Negron continued to see a doctor regarding infections on her fingers and toes resulting from her illness. Due to a sudden onset of symptoms, Ms. Negron was admitted to Overlake again on April 3 for amputation of the tips of her fingers and toes. This time Overlake did make an emergency request to the Center for the Deaf, asking at 2:30 p.m. for an interpreter for pre-operation communications from 5:00 to 7:00 that evening. The Center was unable to provide an interpreter on short notice, but the hospital was able to obtain assistance from a capable visitor who happened to be on the premises. The Center provided interpreters after the operation and on two other occasions during Ms. Negron's eight day stay.

The Negrons filed a handicap discrimination suit against Overlake, claiming the hospital failed to reasonably accommodate their deafness. Overlake moved for summary judgment dismissal of all plaintiff's claims with prejudice, claiming that "reasonable minds could not differ with the premise that entering into such a contract [with the Center for the Deaf] was a reasonable method of accommodating any patients with hearing disabilities who might seek treatment at Overlake."

The Negrons responded, declaring that the hospital's failure to provide adequate interpreting services at critical moments left Ms. Negron isolated, frightened and unaware ...


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