In its decision filed 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 a West Virginia jury against a nursing home and the various ownership and management companies created to own and operate the nursing home, stating that, “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.” (emphasis added)
“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.”
However, the Supreme Court did reduce the jury’s award of compensatory damages from $11.5 million to $4,594,615.22 and reduced the jury’s award of punitive damages from $80 million to $31,978,521.93.
The Underlying Facts
On September 4, 2009, an eighty-seven-year-old woman (“Ms. Douglas”) was admitted to Heartland Nursing Home in Charleston, West Virginia. At the time of her admission to Heartland Nursing Home, she suffered from Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and other health issues; nevertheless, she was able to walk with the use of a walker, able to recognize and communicate with her family, and she was well-nourished and well-hydrated.
After spending nineteen days in Heartland Nursing Home, Ms. Douglas had become dehydrated, malnourished, bed ridden, and barely responsive. In addition, she had fallen numerous times, sustained head trauma and bruises, and suffered from sores in her mouth and throat that required the scraping away of dead tissue and debris.
Following her nineteen-day stay at Heartland Nursing Home, Ms. Douglas was transferred to another nursing facility, then to a hospital where she died as a result of severe dehydration.
Evidence presented at trial demonstrated that Heartland Nursing Home had been chronically understaffed. There had been numerous complaints from residents and their families, as well as by Heartland Nursing Home employees. At least one employee who complained of understaffing was reprimanded for her complaint, and the complaint was apparently removed from Heartland Nursing Home records. Additionally, and notwithstanding attempts to conceal the understaffing, surveys by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services documented Heartland Nursing Home’s understaffing and improper records pertaining to staff that occurred prior to Ms. Douglas’ admission to that facility. Nevertheless, Heartland Nursing Home remained understaffed and, as a result, Ms. Douglas did not survive the adverse effects of her stay there.
Ms. Douglas’ son, individually and on behalf of the estate of his mother, filed suit against various corporate entities related to Heartland: Manor Care, Inc. (a holding company that owns the stock of the other named businesses); HCR Manor Care Services, Inc. (the management company); Health Care and Retirement Corporation of America, LLC (which owned skilled nursing facilities and other health care facilities such as assisted living and hospice facilities and apparently also held the operating licenses for Heartland Nursing Home and other nursing homes it owned); and, Heartland Employment Services, LLC. (which employed the workers, including administrators and regional directors, who were then leased to Health Care and Retirement Corporation of America, LLC).
The Supreme Court held that the egregious facts supported both the compensatory damages and the punitive damages, in the amounts that the Supreme Court stated above.
MANOR CARE, INC.; HCR MANOR CARE SERVICES, INC.; HEALTH CARE AND RETIREMENT CORPORATION OF AMERICA, LLC; HEARTLAND EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, LLC; JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 10; AND UNIDENTIFIED ENTITIES 1 THROUGH 10 (AS TO HEARTLAND OF CHARLESTON), Defendants Below, Petitioners, V. TOM DOUGLAS, INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF DOROTHY DOUGLAS, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents, January 2014 Term, No. 13-0470. Click here to read the opinion.
If you or a loved one were injured (or worse) as a result of a stay in a nursing home in West Virginia or in another U.S. state, you should promptly consult with a West Virginia nursing home attorney (West Virginia medical malpractice attorney) or a nursing home attorney/medical malpractice attorney in your state who may investigate your nursing home claim for you and represent you in a nursing home case, if appropriate.
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