Settlement reached in autistic man's choking death at group home

By Jim Boyle | Oct 29, 2014

The family of a mentally disabled man who choked to death at a Wyoming County, Pa., care facility in 2010 has reached a settlement with the group home where he lived, with the proceeds pledged to benefit organizations that support and advocate for vulnerable populations.

John Glenn Popple suffered from severe mental retardation, autism, organic personality disorder, and bipolar disorder and needed constant supervision and assistance with all aspects of day-to-day life. As he grew older, he developed increasingly severe manic episodes that were complicated by chronic insomnia and periods of extreme agitation, according to court records.

No longer able to adequately care for him following the death of her husband, John, and her own severe illness, his mother, Gail, decided to place John Glenn at the New Hope Group Home in 2005. Owned and operated by Step by Step, Inc., New Hope was home to no more than four residents at any one time.

As documented by Popple’s Individual Service Plan (ISP) and his medical records, he often would stuff his mouth full with food or inanimate objects, placing him at severe risk for choking. His ISP – which Step by Step personnel reviewed and helped write each year – mandated constant line-of-sight supervision in a one-on-one care environment.

On the night of Sept. 14, 2010, Popple got out of bed and walked out of his bedroom. No alarm had been installed on his bed or bedroom door, and no staff member was posted outside his room, despite his ISP’s requirement for direct line-of-sight monitoring at all times.

Unseen by staff members, John Glenn proceeded alone to a kitchen area, where he discovered an unattended box of jelly donuts. He was found later by a staffer who had worked at the facility for only 16 days and was untrained in CPR. By that time, Popple had stuffed at least four donuts into his mouth and was choking to death. An autopsy later would reveal that he had aspirated some of the food into his lungs, causing severe hemorrhaging.

In the wake of Popple’s death, management-level employees of Step by Step, Inc. took extensive measures to try to hide their negligence that night, according to the plaintiffs. Both the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare and an independent investigator hired by the Popple family determined that Step by Step failed to collect evidence at the scene of Popple’s death, falsified statements to official investigators, and terminated employees who indicated their intention to cooperate with outside investigators.

"My brother is gone for good, after dying an awful death," said Jeff Popple, who filed suit against the home where his brother died at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas.

"The people who were supposed to be responsible for him were irresponsible, and then were devious and untrustworthy as they tried to cover up what had happened rather than take responsibility for their mistakes. We never wanted the money; it won’t bring my brother back. For us, this settlement is about ensuring that people like my brother are treated better.”

The Popples have established a foundation in John Glenn’s name to receive the proceeds of the settlement and donate to organizations that support and advocate for vulnerable populations. Already, $50,000 has been donated to The Arc of Luzerne County, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Another $50,000 has been donated to the Luzerne County Child Advocacy Center, which is opening a new location that will give police officers, social service workers and doctors a more approachable setting in which to interview and examine children who may be victims of abuse or sexual assault.

The family is represented by attorneys Melissa Scartelli and Peter Paul Olszewski, Jr.

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