State taking action against facility in death of 80-year-old

Marie Duddy

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is taking enforcement action against a James Island senior living facility after a resident with severe dementia wandered off and was found dead in a marsh in May.

State investigators uncovered several violations at Savannah Place, at 1501 Secessionville Road, including inoperable door alarms when 80-year-old Marie Duddy walked away from the home on May 20, according to the investigation report. Duddy was found dead the following day in a marsh area in a neighborhood adjacent to the facility.

It was determined that she most likely left through a controlled entrance at the front of the building.

Doors at Savannah Place typically remain locked and have an audible alarm. On the day Duddy went missing, the paging system that notifies staff of an open exterior door was not working, according to the report.

The paging and alarm system was found to be inoperable on May 19. The issue wasn’t fixed until May 23, after Duddy’s body was found, the regional director of facilities management told DHEC. DHEC initiated an enforcement action against Savannah Place due to the nature and severity of the violations and other factors, spokesman Jim Beasley said in an email. That action is pending and further details were not available. The agency has also accepted a correction plan from Savannah Place in response to the violations.

The facility failed to address Duddy’s increased wandering and other behaviors, DHEC found. Furthermore, the report alleges that Savannah Place didn’t provide care in a manner that consistently ensured her safety.

Representatives visited Savannah Place unannounced after the death. They found that staff were aware of Duddy’s repeated attempts to exit the facility and were instructed to know her location at all times.

The investigation revealed numerous reports of Duddy wandering into other residents’ rooms. In April, staff noted that she was “constantly exit seeking.”

Employees told police that Duddy had tried to escape in the past but never made it off the premises, according to a police report.

Staff saw Duddy carrying a picture of her granddaughters while walking through the facility the day of her disappearance. Just after 3:40 p.m., an employee reported seeing the photo near the outside of the front door, the police report states. Employees searched the property, then called 911 to report her missing about 5 p.m.

Her body was found the following night after ground, air and water searches.

DHEC cited Savannah Place in March for understaffing and missing documentation.

The facility is owned by Enlivant, which operates 10 assisted-living communities in the state, according to its website. The company was not available for comment.

Attorney Stephan Futeral, of Futeral & Nelson, said he plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the facility on behalf of Duddy’s family and estate. He called Duddy’s death “highly preventable” and said her family wants to see increased public awareness and transparency.

Her relatives “essentially would like to see other families avoid what they’re going through,” Futeral said.

Reach Angie Jackson at 843-937-5705. Follow her on Twitter at @angiejackson23.