On March 5, 2014, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (“the Court”), West Virginia’s highest court, heard oral arguments with regard to the appeal of a nursing home malpractice jury verdict in the amount of $91.5 million that was rendered in 2011. $80 million of the verdict was for punitive damages. The $11 million in compensatory damages awarded by the jury included $1.5 million for violations of the West Virginia Nursing Home Act, $4.5 million for noneconomic damages, and $5 million for breach of fiduciary duty.
The nursing home malpractice case was filed by the son of an 87-year-old woman, alleging that over the course of 19 days as a resident in the nursing home, the elderly woman was abused and neglected, leading to multiple falls that caused head trauma, bruises, sores in her mouth and throat, malnutrition, unresponsiveness, and the dehydration that was the cause of her death. The defendants alleged that the woman died due to dementia, which was listed as the cause of death on her death certificate (the woman died in hospice care 18 days after she left the nursing home).
One of the major issues on appeal is whether the cap imposed under West Virginia’s Medical Professional Liability Act (“Act”) applied: the defendants argue that they are “health care facilities” offering “health care services” as defined in the Act. The Act was enacted in 2003 and limits non-economic damages to $500,000 for health care but it was not specified if nursing homes were “health care providers” as defined under the Act at the time; not long after the jury rendered its verdict in this case, the West Virginia Senate passed a bill “to clarify that the Legislature originally intended that all actions brought against a nursing home are subject to all the limitations and provisions set forth in the Medical Professional Liability Act.”
The lower court in this case had reduced the jury’s verdict by $1 million, finding that the Act’s cap applied to only part of the award (the jury determined that 80% of the compensatory damages were due to ordinary negligence and only 20% of the remaining portion of compensatory damages were due to medical negligence).
The defendants argue in their appeal that the Act always applied to nursing homes and that the later change in the law was only for clarification purposes (the definition of “health care facilities” in the Act specifically referenced nursing homes). Furthermore, the defendants argue that if medical negligence was present at the nursing home at all, then it should be covered under the Act.
The plaintiff contends on appeal that the Act does not apply to his case because many of the defendants were not “health care facilities” and that the negligence fell outside the scope of rendering health care services (arguing that the defendants failed to provide sufficient staff or budget, which are not “health care decisions,” and that his mother died as a result).
The Court also heard arguments from the parties with regard to the other issues raised on appeal.
We will have to wait until the Court issues its decision in this case to find out who prevails and what future proceedings may occur in this case. With West Virginia amending its law after the jury rendered its verdict in this case, it is highly unlikely that the specific issues raised in this case with regard to whether nursing homes are covered under the Act will arise in future West Virginia nursing home cases.
If you or a loved one may have been injured (or worse) due to nursing home malpractice in West Virginia or in another U.S. state, you should promptly consult with a West Virginia nursing home malpractice attorney or a nursing home malpractice attorney in your state who may investigate your claim for you and represent you in a nursing home negligence case, if appropriate.
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