Family of COVID victim sues Johnson County nursing home

Garden Terrace at Overland Park, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility, 7541 Switzer Road in Overland Park.

Garden Terrace at Overland Park, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility, 7541 Switzer Road in Overland Park.


Family of a Johnson County woman who died after contracting the coronavirus in spring 2020 is suing her nursing home.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed by two children of Mae Lean Roark accuses Garden Terrace at Overland Park of negligence leading to Roark’s death.

On March 26, 2020, Mae Roark was admitted into the nursing home at the age of 83. She had a history of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, hypertension and chronic kidney disease, family said in the court filing.

On April 21, 2020, the nursing home sent a letter to residents and families notifying them that a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. Three days later another letter came saying another staff member tested positive.

An investigation by The Star published on April 26, 2020, reported that 26 nursing home residents across at least eight facilities in Johnson County had already died of the virus. At the time, nursing home deaths accounted for 70% of Johnson County’s total deaths from the virus up to that point.

On May 4, 2020, while visiting with his mother, Sam Roark, a plaintiff in the case, noticed she looked ill, according to the suit. Nursing staff who were with them told the son that his mother had not slept well the night before.

Two days later another letter went out saying a third member of the staff was diagnosed with COVID.

The same day, Roark was injured in a fall, according to court records. Family on that day noticed she seemed sick and asked that the nursing home test her for COVID. But the facility refused, family claims.

The next day, on May 7, Roark was given supplemental oxygen. The following day, she tested positive for COVID and was put in isolation. A letter was sent out saying a resident had contracted the virus.

Roark was taken to the emergency room the following day after she started having trouble swallowing and became lethargic, according to the lawuit. She remained hospitalized for five days until, after getting sicker and sicker, she died.

The suit claims Roark died “as a direct and proximate result of the negligence and carelessness of the defendants.”

Roark’s family alleges, in part, that the nursing home failed to comply with state and federal nursing home regulations and COVID-19 protocols and that they failed to “implement and execute timely, necessary infectious disease treatment, prevention of disease spreading and management.”

The suit also alleges, among other things, that the nursing home didn’t have sufficient staff and services for its residents, resulting in Roark receiving deficient services.

Kevin Young, a Kansas City attorney representing the Roark family, said after reviewing several COVID-19 death cases involving nursing homes, the Roark’s was the only one he has filed on.

“We think there’s a strong case that we can prove that the facility was not complying with protocols at the time,” he told The Star.

He said by the time Roark contracted COVID, nursing homes knew that they needed to both establish and follow pandemic protocols.

“By May, everyone knew this was a really serious problem; and it was killing especially elderly people at very high rates,” he said.

Young said he has “strong reason to believe” the nursing home was not following protocol, though he declined to elaborate on specifics at this point in the case.

When reached Monday, Debbie Biehl, Garden Terrace’s executive director, provided a statement through her attorney, William Denning, writing: “Our commitment to the safety of our residents and their families has never been higher. While this case is pending, we will continue our efforts to provide quality and compassionate care to our patients, as we focus on their overall health, well-being and peace of mind.”

Biehl said she could not comment on further specifics due to the pending nature of the lawsuit as well as HIPAA.

Roark’s surviving family has requested a jury trial.

The defendants have until Dec. 29 to respond to the suit, which was filed in late November.

On June 22, 2020, less than six weeks after Roark’s death, The Star reported that Garden Terrace was experiencing a COVID outbreak involving 58 cases and 11 deaths.

At the time, nursing homes and assisted living facilities made up nearly 84% of Johnson County’s total cases. Sixty-seven deaths of the 80 deaths reported in the county at that point had been linked to Johnson County long-term care facilities.

The company that owns Garden Terrace has seen coronavirus outbreaks in several of its facilities across the country, including at least three in Kansas.

By summer 2020, Life Care Centers of America, which owns Garden Terrace, saw several COVID outbreaks at facilities across the country, including at the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, where the country’s first big outbreak in a nursing home occurred, and at least three facilities in Kansas.

Roark was a former member of the Greater Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church and an employee of more than 30 years at the USD 500 School District, loved ones wrote in her obituary.

“Mae Lean was a very fun spirited outgoing person who loved all of her family,” they wrote. “She never met a stranger. The neighborhood kids called her Grandma that grew up around her and played with her grandkids. She loved playing cards, dominoes and watching the KC Chiefs.”

The Star’s Laura Bauer contributed reporting.

This story was originally published December 13, 2021 3:18 PM.

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Anna Spoerre covers breaking news for the Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, she covered crime and courts for the Des Moines Register. Spoerre is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studied journalism.

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