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Family of caseworker killed in Dade City stabbing files negligence lawsuit

Published Mar. 6, 2014

DADE CITY — Police said the man at the apartment complex made Stephanie Ross nervous. As a Medicaid caseworker, the 25-year-old recent USF graduate had visited him three times. Ross' job was to make sure Lucious Smith and about 35 other mentally ill clients took their medications and got treatment to keep them out of hospitals.

She wrote in her case notes that some of Smith's statements made her uncomfortable and two workers should be sent to his home. But Ross' supervisor approved the notes, according to police reports, and continued to send Ross to Smith's home alone.

On Dec. 10, 2012, police say, Smith chased Ross with a large butcher knife and, as neighbors tried to help, fatally stabbed her.

Nearly 18 months later, Smith remains in custody and incompetent to stand trial. Last month Ross' family filed a lawsuit against her former employer, Integra Health Management, saying the company was negligent for sending her alone to visit Smith, whose record includes a history of mental illness and a conviction for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Despite Smith's record and Ross' documented concerns, Ross' supervisor "took no action whatsoever," according to the complaint, filed in Hillsborough County circuit court.

In addition to Maryland-based Integra, the complaint also names HBHCI HUD5, which owns Smith's Coleman Road apartment complex, as well as Smiths' insurer, Virginia Beach-based Amerigroup Corp., and BayCare Behavioral Health, which the lawsuit says operates the property as a residential treatment facility.

The lawsuit was filed by Tracey R. Stephens, Ross' sister and the estate's personal representative on behalf of her parents, Janet L. Svarai and Robert J. Ross Jr. It does not specify damages.

The family's attorney, Bradley Stewart of Bartow, and BayCare declined to comment on the complaint. Representatives for the other defendants did not respond to messages Wednesday.

The lawsuit says the defendants had a duty to protect Ross from violence.

It also includes a brochure from Integra, which touts its "feet on the street" program as helping keep patients out of costly emergency rooms. It says caseworkers such as Ross work in peer groups and receive 40 hours of training.

However, Ross' personal calendar, included as an exhibit, documents only eight hours of training after being employed by Integra for about three months. Dee Brown, a spokeswoman for Integra, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2012 that all hires receive 40 hours of training and are shadowed by a supervisor before beginning work on their own.

She said caseworkers try to reach patients by phone but visit when they can't. Brown said at the time that Ross never said she felt unsafe with Smith. However, Dade City police reports say an officer who read a company laptop over the shoulder of an Integra supervisor noted that Ross had said she felt uncomfortable and recommended that two workers visit Smith.

In June, Occupational and Safety and Health Administration fined Integra $10,500 for not providing a place of employment free from hazards likely to cause death and for failing to report a workplace fatality. The company is contesting the fine.

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