Local News

Saturday, May 01 2010 07:00 PM

Officer at heart of multimillion dollar lawsuit resigns

BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

A Bakersfield police officer who handcuffed and detained a local neonatal surgeon moments after the doctor suffered a massive stroke has left the police department after she was investigated for making a false crime report in a separate case.

The revelation could have implications for a multimillion dollar lawsuit against several taxpayer-funded agencies filed after the 2007 incident -- during which hospital care for Dr. Mohamad Harb was apparently delayed for more than an hour.

Former BPD Officer Claudia Payne no longer works for the police department, Sgt. Mary DeGeare confirmed Friday.

"Officer Payne resigned on March 1, 2010," DeGeare said. She cited "personnel issues" in saying she could not comment on the circumstances of Payne's departure.

Payne could not be reached for comment Friday.

FALSE REPORT

Investigation reports obtained by The Californian indicate Payne contacted the Sheriff's Department in January 2006 to report that a horse she was caring for as a favor to a friend had been stolen. The case was dropped until late last year when the owner of the American quarterhorse gelding found her horse in the possession of a third party.

Payne later admitted to selling the horse, valued by its owner at $6,500. She also admitted to lying to investigators when she reported the horse had been stolen.

The case was submitted to the Kern County District Attorney's office in January. But on Feb. 1, prosecutors rejected the complaint request because the statute of limitations had lapsed.

QUESTIONS OF CREDIBILITY

The case of the missing horse may have wider significance than the effect it had on the owners of the gelding. Payne's credibility is likely to be important to the outcome of the $10 million lawsuit, which names Payne, the city of Bakersfield, Hall Ambulance, individual Hall employees, the county of Kern and Kern Medical Center as defendants.

A police report of the incident compiled by former Officer Payne notes she was dispatched to the north sidewalk of 24th Street near Oak Street at approximately 6:55 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2007.

Harb's vehicle had veered off the road and stopped at the curb. He had just left the KMC neonatal ward where he had worked all day. He was still wearing surgical scrubs.

A witness to the crash went up to Harb, "delaying his flight until police arrived," Payne wrote in her report.

Payne reported that when she arrived, Harb appeared disoriented and attempted to place the key to his Mercedes back in the ignition. He urinated on the sidewalk and threw up on his shirt.

Payne removed him from the car and placed him in cuffs. His speech was "confused, thick and slurred," she wrote.

The first of two Hall ambulances arrived.

According to an incident report filed by Hall Ambulance Emergency Medical Technician Brian Dumont, Harb's vital signs and blood sugar were found to be normal.

Police told Dumont that Harb was given two alcohol breath tests, both of which registered zero.

But then the system may have broken down.

"(Police) chose to cancel ambulance transport," the Hall report states.

Unfortunately, the first ambulance would be sent on its way, witnesses say by Payne, who had apparently decided to transport Harb.

Things began to change when a nurse who had worked with Harb all day drove by and saw the doctor sitting on the curb with his hands cuffed behind his back. In a witness statement, Registered Nurse Mehgan Coffey said Harb was still wearing a surgical scrub top and tan slacks. One shoe was off and lying in the gutter.

She stopped, identified herself and immediately noticed Harb's pupils were "pinpoint and sluggish to react."

"I told the officers that another ambulance needed to get back here now and transport this man to the hospital," she wrote.

Possibly realizing Harb was in the midst of a medical emergency, police agreed at her request to remove his cuffs, Coffey said.

As a medical professional, Coffey knew that for a stroke victim, every minute counts. "Time lost is brain lost," according to the American Stroke Association's website.

Coffey stayed with Harb until the second ambulance arrived. His gait was unsteady and he was drooling as he stood up to walk to the gurney.

PAYNE'S REPORT

The brief report of the incident filed by Payne mentions an "unidentified nurse" who stopped and advised that Harb had suffered a stroke two years before.

But Coffey didn't know Harb before that day and knew nothing of his medical history.

A second nurse had called Harb's cell phone to report some problems with a patient. A police officer answered the phone. It was she who informed officers that Harb had suffered a stroke in the past.

Nothing of the alcohol breath tests are mentioned in Payne's report.

Payne also did not note that the first ambulance was canceled by police. There is no mention of a second ambulance in the police report.

According to a combination of three reports, one hour and three minutes passed between the dispatcher's call and Harb's arrival at the emergency room at KMC.

Steven Gibbs, the attorney representing Harb and his family, said Payne's admission that she gave a false crime report to police raises serious questions about her veracity in other matters, including her report of what may have been a botched response by police to a medical emergency.

He also has discovered, through depositions, that the Bakersfield Fire Department was on scene as well -- another detail not mentioned in reports.

Gibbs said he's concerned that police too often assume that symptoms of illness are a result of intoxication.

"If it had been a regular Joe driving that car and it hadn't occurred near a busy intersection -- if it had been you or me -- we'd be dead," Gibbs said.

Bakersfield City Attorney Ginny Gennaro kept her comments brief.

"I don't know that that officer was the first on the scene," she said of Payne. "I do know that a member of the Bakersfield Police Department has resigned for personal reasons -- that's personal reasons, not personnel reasons."

The stroke has left Harb, the father of four children, unable to practice medicine.

A civil trial is scheduled for mid-August.

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