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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 02:02 pm

State finally has to pay

Too late for rape victim, but family welcomes award

On July 3, 1994, Lisa Weisser was raped by another patient at McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield. That fact has never been in dispute: the rapist, Bryan K. Noel, pleaded guilty to sexual assault.

Weisser, however, believed the rape never would have happened if McFarland had handled Noel properly. She sued the hospital for negligence, alleging that staff at the state-operated hospital failed to exercise ordinary care to protect her from Noel. Earlier this year, in a unanimous opinion from the Illinois Court of Claims, Weisser won.

But the marathon legal battle left casualties — mainly Weisser, whose struggles with severe depression had led her to McFarland in the first place. She committed suicide in December 2005, about six months after testifying before the court of claims. Her husband, Mikel, received her monetary award just this month.

Weisser received half of the court’s $100,000 cap. After legal fees, his cut was $38,000. Some people may consider that sum paltry, after a 14-year fight, but Weisser says the lawsuit never was about money.

It was worth it to see the ruling that the state had been negligent,” he says.

The Weissers, who were married for 23 years, saw Lisa’s rape as an example of a larger patient-violence problem plaguing mental health facilities in the 1990s. Illinois Times documented other such incidents in a 1995 cover story by Jeff Ignatius, and updated the Weisser case 10 years later [see “Victim of the State,” Oct. 13, 2005].

Mikel Weisser never imagined the lawsuit would evolve into such a lengthy process. “It turns out that suing the state of Illinois is kind of a tough thing to do,” he says. Under the court’s rules, a “claimant” first has to exhaust all other avenues, which meant that Lisa Weisser had to sue Noel in circuit court. She did, and in 2002 won a default judgment of $600,000. She never received any money from him (neither the state nor Weisser’s attorneys nor IT reporters have been able to locate Noel), but the adjudication of that case allowed her case against the state to proceed.

In July 1994, Weisser had admitted herself to McFarland after a suicide attempt. It wasn’t her first stay at the hospital, operated by the Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities; she had been on Social Security Disability due to depression since 1987. This time, she was assigned to a room in Jefferson Hall, where there are no locks on the doors.

Noel was assigned to a bed placed at the nurses’ station, and according to court records, he told Weisser that he was assigned there “because I can’t keep it in my pants.” Just five weeks earlier, he had terrorized a woman by following her through downtown Springfield asking, “Do you want to get raped?” (he pleaded guilty to a sexual assault for that incident), and three months before that, he had been named as the suspect in another sexual assault at McFarland. When an Illinois State Police officer investigating the assault against Weisser questioned staff, they reported that Noel was known to stare at female patients, stalk them and grab them.

At McFarland, patients deemed a danger to themselves or others could be put in seclusion or in a “restraint room,” but Noel was instead simply told to not go into other patients’ rooms. He assaulted Weisser — who was napping, fully-clothed, in her own room — on a holiday weekend when the staff was busy with other patients.

The rape had a profound effect on Lisa Weisser. Although she had voluntarily sought residential treatment for depression several times, she never did again. After her death, Mikel Weisser remarried in February 2007, and now lives in Bullhead, Ariz., where he teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies and writes political columns for opednews.com.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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