Attorney: Wrongful death suit filed against Wilmington assisted living facility over man’s fatal attack


WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — The family of a man who died at a Wilmington assisted living facility last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

The suit is against Spring Arbor of Wilmington and its owners and operators, HHHunt.

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Police say an 80-year-old man, now identified as Garland Garrett Jr., a former North Carolina Secretary of Transportation, was assaulted by another man living there. It happened on September 6 at the facility on John D. Barry Drive. He was taken to the hospital and died on Sep. 12.

Authorities ruled his death a homicide.

Attorneys for the family say that the timeline of events leading up the attack do not add up.

The family is being represented by Rhine Law Firm, P.C. and The Lea/Schultz Law Firm, P.C. The firms announced in October that they were conducting their own private investigation into the incident.

Garrett’s family and attorneys held a news conference Thursday morning to announce legal action.

The lawsuit and plaintiffs said in September, the 80-year-old, who suffered from dementia, was asleep in his bedroom when a fellow resident, who behaved aggressively multiple times in the past and who shared Garrett’s bathroom, entered the former secretary’s room and attacked him.

The attack left Garrett with a broken nose and a neck broken in two places. Family members say injuries were so extreme.

Family members said the injuries were so bad, neurosurgeons said they were inoperable.

“He didn’t understand that he was in the hospital, that he was injured,” remembered Garrett’s son, Greg Garrett. “He didn’t know why. He wanted to get the brace off, he couldn’t stand the confinement. But for him to suffer like that, and to see it, it was painful.”

According to the plaintiff’s lawyers, this was not the first time the resident had acted aggressively.

DHHS investigated the incident,” said Joel Rhine, attorney at law, “and found that the demented attacker, whose name was Thomas Gunter, had repeatedly attacked staff and residents.”

According to attorney Martin Ramey, when checking in patients, Spring Arbor families receive forms that state if a patient becomes dangerous to themselves or others, they will be removed from the facility.

According to Garrett’s family, the man returned to Spring Arbor after Garrett’s death, and was not removed until he attacked a member of his own family who had moved in with him at the facility.

“Even after staff had begged the facility and the executive director to protect the residents, to protect the staff, to discharge this violent attacker,” said Rhine.

According to attorney Jim Lee, who knew Garrett for years, the lawsuit is not in any way geared toward staff. It’s to hold Spring Arbor and its owner, HHHunt, accountable.

“I’m telling you he was an extraordinary human being, and he did not deserve this,” Lee said.  “When you put somebody in a senior living facility, when you put your parent in there, you expect them to stay safe. To be taken care of. And there was gross negligence in this case in taking care of Garland Garrett.”

The attack shattered Garrett’s family, especially his widow.

“She was having nightmares about what happened to him and how he died,” said Garrett’s daughter-in-law, Amanda Garrett. “And I think that just took a toll on her stress level. And we found her on the floor. She had had a stroke.”

The family hopes if anything, the suit will keep other families and elderly parents from the same fate.

WWAY reached out to Spring Arbor and its regional director, but has not gotten a response.