A 97-year-old woman froze to death after being locked outside of Louisville assisted living facility, lawsuit says

Courtesy of Hailey Hart PLLC
A photo of Mary Jo Staub, who died due to hypothermia when she was locked out of her assisted living facility in Louisville.

When the staff of Lavender Farms finally found Mary Jo Staub on the morning of Feb. 26, 2022, her frozen body was lying on a sidewalk, just a few feet from a door leading to a nurses’ station. 

The 97-year-old had been there for over five hours, according to a wrongful death complaint filed by her family against Balfour Senior Living this week in Boulder County District Court. The family is now seeking a trial against the facility and staff for alleged neglect that took place last year. 

Several hours before Staub’s death, she had exhibited signs of confusion and hallucinations. A nurse recommended regular supervision throughout the night. 

A Lavender Farms staff member allegedly checked on the 97-year-old assisted living resident in her bedroom around 10 p.m. on Feb. 25, according to the lawsuit.

“Mary Jo is doing well, has her (oxygen) on, was tired, and went to bed around 7 p.m.,” the staff member noted in a log that night. “Took medication regimen as ordered.” 

Early the next morning, Staub wandered outside of the Louisville facility by herself with her walker. As the door shut behind her, she was automatically locked out in below-freezing weather. Video surveillance shows she was wearing only pajamas, a robe, boots and gloves.

Staub froze and crawled on her hands and knees to a pair of glass-paned French doors, according to the lawsuit. Directly inside was a vacant nurses’ station. 

“Mary Jo screamed and banged on the French doors and the window to the nurses’ station for help,” the lawsuit states. “No one at Balfour found Mary Jo outside until 5:51 a.m. She had frozen to death.”

What the lawsuit alleges

The complaint names the facility’s parent company, Balfour Senior Living, its employees and Balfour’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Schonbrun as defendants. It lists several civil and criminal claims that contributed to Staub’s death, including negligence, fraudulent business misrepresentation and manslaughter. 

“Assisted living facilities are supposed to provide protective oversight for our elderly loved ones,” said Elizabeth Hart, a lawyer with Denver-based firm Hailey Hart PLLC, which is representing Staub’s family. “The family wants to ensure this doesn’t happen to any other member of this vulnerable population.”

Balfour Senior Living did not respond to CPR News’ request for comment. The company operates at least five senior living facilities in Colorado, including sites in Denver, Littleton, Longmont and Louisville. 

The lawsuit against the company also alleges staff lied to Staub’s family about her condition and misled police investigators to avoid criminal charges associated with her death. 

After discovering Staub’s body, Lavender Farms staffers called 911 and her body was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead. 

A Balfour representative contacted Staub’s family and said the 97-year-0ld had “fallen, hurt her ankle, and was found outside,” the lawsuit states. Family members did not learn of her death until they arrived at the hospital and were asked to identify her body. 

An autopsy later confirmed the cause was hypothermia, according to the lawsuit. 

Lavender Farms employees on duty the night of her death lied about checking on Staub in her room, the lawsuit said. Staffers also alleged that Staub had “canceled” overnight checks that were ordered by a nurse after she experienced hallucinations throughout the day, which the lawsuit claims is against the nursing home’s policies. 

Staub’s case comes amid a rough few years for the skilled nursing home industry.

Homes across Colorado have suffered from understaffing for years. Many have closed altogether due to the issue.

The strained system received a wave of public scrutiny during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Colorado saw some of the country’s worst death rates among seniors due to the disease. Understaffing was one of the key factors. 

Employment levels haven’t improved. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows the number of workers employed at nursing and elder care facilities continued to decline nationwide since early 2020, while other health sector jobs have nearly recovered.

The impact of preventable deaths like Staub’s is traumatizing for families, according to her relatives’ lawsuit. 

“Mary Jo was deeply loved,” said Hart, the family’s lawyer. “Her life was tragically cut short.”

Balfour Senior Living now has a chance to respond to Staub’s family’s complaint in court. A hearing for the case has not been set in Boulder County District Court.