The Court of Appeals of Iowa (“Iowa Appellate Court”) held in its decision filed on June 6, 2018 that the trial court had not abused its discretion in allowing the Iowa nursing home negligence jury to consider the defendant nursing home’s prior deficiency citations, finding that the citations concerned the same matters as raised by the plaintiff – prior deficiencies concerning resident dignity, skin care, safety, nutrition, and hydration. Therefore, the prior deficiency citations “were obviously relevant to the punitive-damages issue.”
The Iowa Appellate Court stated that the details underlying the prior deficiency citations that were provided to the Iowa nursing home negligence jury, although limited, concerned matters of the same type the plaintiffs’ evidence suggested the defendant nursing home provided inadequate attention to as to the plaintiff; the citations were issued in relation to the defendant nursing home’s inadequate care of other residents in the same facility. The Iowa Appellate Court stated, “We conclude plaintiffs met the proper foundational showing for admission of the testimony concerning the citations … We conclude the obvious probative value of the citation testimony was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. See Iowa R. Evid. 5.403.”
Punitive Damages Award
The Iowa Appellate Court stated that evidence supporting an award of punitive damages must be clear, convincing, and satisfactory. Iowa Code § 668A.1(1)(a). The specific conduct that will support an award of punitive damages is that which establishes a “willful and wanton disregard for the rights or safety of another.” Conduct is willful and wanton when an actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow, and which thus is usually accompanied by a conscious indifference to the consequences. Generally, submitting the issue of punitive damages to the jury is appropriate where the evidence shows a persistent course of conduct that the defendant acted with no care and with disregard to the consequences of those acts.
The Iowa Appellate Court stated that the evidence in the present case reveals that the defendant nursing home was on notice that its staffing levels were inadequate to meet the needs of its residents and such inadequate staffing resulted in repeated adverse consequences to the plaintiff, yet the defendant nursing home took no steps to remedy the situation. The Iowa Appallate Court held: “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, we find the evidence was sufficient to support a finding of legal malice, wrongful conduct committed with a willful or reckless disregard for the rights of another, and therefore generate a jury question on the issue of punitive damages. We therefore affirm the district court’s denial of [the defendant nursing home’s] motion for a directed verdict.”
Reasonableness Of The Jury’s Punitive Damages Award
The Iowa Appellate Court stated that the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct is the most important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive-damage award. A number of factors are to be considered in determining the reprehensibility of a defendant’s conduct, whether:  The harm caused was physical as opposed to economic;  the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others;  the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and  the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.
The Iowa Appellate Court held that “[u]pon our de novo review of the record, we find these factors were established in the record.”
With regard to the amount of the Iowa jury’s puntive damages award ($750,000) as compared to the amount of the jury’s compensatory damages award ($150,000), the Iowa Appellate Court held: “we do not view the single-digit-multiplier disparity between actual or potential harm and the punitive-damages award so great as to amount to a due process violation and therefore require remittitur or a new trial.”
Christensen v. Good Shepard, Inc., No. 17-0516.
If you or a loved one suffered injuries (or worse) while a resident of a nursing home in Iowa or in another U.S. state due to nursing home neglect, nursing home negligence, nursing home abuse, nursing home under-staffing, or the nursing home failing to properly care for a vulnerable adult, you should promptly find a nursing home claim lawyer in Iowa or in your state who may investigate your nursing home claim for you and file a nursing home claim on your behalf or behalf of your loved one, if appropriate.
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