On October 20, 2014, a West Virginia judge gave final approval to a settlement reached in a nursing home negligence case in which a jury had awarded $91.5 million to the plaintiffs in 2011. The judge approved the distribution of the $38 million settlement funds as follows: $20.5 to the family members of the 87-year-old nursing home resident who was severely injured and then died as a result of the nursing home neglect ($10.5 to the resident’s son, who filed the nursing home negligence case against a West Virginia nursing home and its operators and owners, and $10 million to the resident’s daughter); $17 million to the family’s attorneys for their fees; $300,000 as reimbursement to the plaintiffs’ attorneys for the litigation-related expenses incurred before trial, during trial, related to the appeal, and following the appeal; and, $50,000 to resolve medical liens.
A West Virginia jury had awarded the family $91.5 million following trial in 2011. The trial judge subsequently reduced the verdict by $1 million because he held that a portion of the jury’s award was subject to West Virginia’s cap on noneconomic damages in certain cases. An appeal followed.
On June 18, 2014, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia (“Supreme Court”) upheld a substantial portion of the compensatory damages and the punitive damages awarded by the jury, stating in its written opinion, “In the face of numerous complaints of understaffing made by residents of Heartland Nursing Home, their families, and employees of Heartland, as well as negative results of surveys performed by the State of West Virginia, MC Companies refused to authorize the use of additional employees to ensure a staff sufficient to meet even the basic life-sustaining needs of its residents, who are among the most vulnerable and helpless citizens of West Virginia. MC Companies’ refusal to ensure that there was sufficient staff at Heartland Nursing Home to properly care for the needs of its residents, by either increasing staff or reducing the number of residents, implies that corporate profit was emphasized over the needs of residents.”
The Supreme Court further stated, “Instead of properly addressing the chronic understaffing of Heartland Nursing Home, MC Companies attempted to conceal the same by creating the appearance of adequate staff during times when the facility was being inspected, and by allowing its posted staffing data to incorrectly reflect higher levels of staff than were actually working. Specifically demonstrated by the facts of this case, MC Companies’ conduct inflicted egregious physical harm upon a weak and helpless woman who depended upon them for her care: egregious physical harm that ultimately cost this helpless woman her life. Furthermore, MC Companies’ wealth and the existence of $125 million in punitive damages insurance coverage demand a high punitive damages award to attract the attention of this corporate conglomerate, discourage future similar conduct, and encourage it to settle future cases for a reasonable amount when it is clear that a wrong has been committed.”
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court reduced the jury’s award of compensatory damages from $11.5 million to $4,594,615.22 and the jury’s award of punitive damages from $80 million to $31,978,521.93.
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