TAMPA — A 19-year-old woman was sexually abused two summers ago while being held involuntarily under Florida’s Baker Act at Tampa Community Hospital, according to a lawsuit.
The woman, who was not named in the lawsuit, was admitted on June 3, 2018 to undergo a mental health evaluation. She was then sexually groomed and abused by employee Frank Lasso during her five-day stay, according to the lawsuit. It was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court in July by the patient’s mother.
The suit names both Lasso and the hospital, which is now a campus under HCA Healthcare’s Memorial Hospital of Tampa. It accuses HCA of negligence, premises liability and violation of a Florida law that protects vulnerable adults. Lasso is being sued for the same violations, as well as civil assault, battery and sexual misconduct.
The lawsuit says the facility at 6001 Webb Road either knew or should have known that Lasso was dangerous. The facility has a culture of “disregard for the health and safety of patients,” it says. The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial and more than $30,000 in damages.
Lasso, now 31, was terminated after the incident, and the hospital helped police conduct a criminal investigation, a spokeswoman said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. He was charged with sexual misconduct by an employee of a treatment facility, according to court records.
In 2019 a judge adjudicated him guilty and sentenced him to six years of probation. He is currently a registered sex offender in Florida.
“We extend our sympathies to the patient and family,” the hospital statement said. “We do not tolerate behavior that jeopardizes the wellbeing of our patients.”
Carl Wilander, an attorney representing the patient’s mother, said the family took legal action in hopes of bringing to light any similar incidents at Tampa Community Hospital — by Lasso or others.
“They were powerless while she was there,” he said. “They couldn’t come in and see her and they were just trusting that the best care was being provided. But that trust was broken.”
Because the patient was at risk of harming herself, she was placed under one-on-one evaluation, according to the lawsuit. Lasso was responsible for watching her, including while she was dressing, sleeping and bathing.
He gave her a fake name and told her sexually explicit jokes. Lasso practiced sexual grooming to “gain (the patient’s) trust with the intent to commit sexual assault, sexual battery and/or sexual misconduct” against her, according to the lawsuit.
He asked about her sexual experiences and then engaged in sexual misconduct with the patient.
“When you’re in an institutional setting like that ... any sexual act, conduct or talk is prohibited,” Wilander said. “You can’t have consent in an area like that because it is expected to be a controlled, monitored and safe environment.”
As a patient under the Baker Act, Florida’s involuntary commitment law for people deemed a danger to themselves or others, the 19-year-old was considered a “vulnerable adult,” the lawsuit states. The term is defined in state statutes as a person 18 or older whose abilities are impaired due to mental and emotional conditions.
“Defendants knew or should have known that (the patient) lacked the capacity to consent,” according to the suit.
The hospital had no protocols in place to recognize or stop Lasso’s behavior, the suit said. The facility allowed him to be alone with the patient in behind closed doors, which allowed him to conceal the abuse. Lasso also kept contact with the patient once she was discharged, sending sexually explicit messages.
The hospital spokeswoman declined to answer questions about Lasso’s employment and disciplinary histories. Wilander said there were “indications” that Lasso had prior “boundary violations,” but did not expound. He said more should come to light as the case moves through the court system.
The patient is now 21 and continues to suffer from Lasso’s abuse, the lawsuit states. She has felt a loss of personal dignity, mental anguish and loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, and the experience has caused “severe and permanent” emotional and psychological trauma that has aggravated her pre-existing conditions.