The Court of Appeals of Ohio (“Ohio Appellate Court”) issued a decision on April 27, 2017 that vacated a punitive damages award in the amount of $560,000 against a nursing home, finding that the plaintiff had failed to provide sufficient evidence of actual malice and therefore the issue of punitive damages against the defendant nursing home should not have gone to the jury for consideration.
The Underlying Facts
A husband and wife were residents of the defendant nursing home. Both used wheelchairs in the nursing home: the wife was unable to operate her own manual wheelchair but her husband had a motorized wheelchair that he was able to operate on his own.
On March 24, 2012, the husband was operating his wheelchair and “towed” his wife, who was in her wheelchair, by having her hold onto a belt that he threw over his shoulder, which was not the first time the husband towed his wife. The defendant’s nurse told the husband to stop towing his wife, which he complied with at first, but then resumed towing his wife. As they were entering the dining room, the wife’s wheelchair got caught in the doorway, causing the wife to fall to the floor.
The next day, the wife reported that she was in pain and an x-ray was reported as showing no fracture. The wife continued to complain of pain the following day, resulting in a trip to the hospital where x-rays revealed a nondisplaced hip fracture. The hospital also noted that the wife had bedsores on her feet. The wife returned to the defendant nursing home on March 27, 2012.
On April 21, 2012, the defendant nursing home staff observed a bedsore on the wife’s buttocks. On April 26, 2012, another pressure ulcer was found on her buttucks. The wife’s condition continued to worsen and several other pressure ulcers developed. On May 4, 2012, the wife was admitted to the hospital from the dialysis center with gastrointestinal bleeding and an infected pressure ulcer.
On May 27, 2012, the wife passed away and the cause of death was listed as “Infected Decubitus Ulcer” due to “Chronic Kidney Disease” and “Hypertension.”
A complaint was subsequently filed against the nursing home claiming negligence, survivorship, and wrongful death, alleging that the defendant nursing home’s conduct constituted actual malice. The nursing home negligence trial resulted in the jury awarding the plaintiff $440,000 in compensatory damages, and subsequently awarding punitive damages in the amount of $560,000.
The defendant nursing home appealed, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of actual malice that would support an award of punitive damages.
Ohio law provides that punitive damages are not recoverable from a defendant in question in a tort action unless the actions or omissions of that defendant demonstrate malice. R.C. 2315.21(C)(1). Actual malice is present where the defendant possessed either (1) that state of mind under which a person’s conduct is characterized by hatred, ill will or a spirit of revenge, or (2) a conscious disregard for the rights and safety of other persons that has a great probability of causing substantial harm.
The Ohio Appellate Court stated that in addition to a “great probability of causing substantial harm,” a defendant must have acted with “conscious disregard” before punitive damages may be awarded, and that it is evident that a reckless actor, who only has knowledge of the mere possibility that his or her actions may result in substantial harm, is not behaving maliciously.
The Ohio Appellate Court held that the plaintiff failed to present evidence of a “callous” mental state or a motive to injure the wife, noting that the staff of the defendant nursing home testified that, in the past, they either intervened or told the husband to stop when they saw him tow his wife: in other words, nobody testified that they disregarded the towing.
The Ohio Appellate Court further held that the plaintiff failed to present substantial, competent, and credible evidence of a great probability of harm, noting that the “unsafe” behavior of towing a wheelchair was initiated and executed by the husband and wife, and the nursing home staff did not “consciously disregard” such; rather, the evidence showed, and the jury found, that they were negligent in handling the situation.
The Ohio Appellate Court concluded: “There is evidence in the instant case showing that the Nursing Home fell below the standard in caring for and treating [the wife]. However, this is not a case where the defendant intentionally acted, or failed to act, knowing that substantial harm will probably occur. There is no evidence of hatred, ill-will, or a spirit of revenge. There is no evidence that the Nursing Home was understaffed or deliberately apathetic about [the wife’s] care. There is no evidence that the Nursing Home treated patients in a way to maximize profitability or minimize expenses. And there is no evidence that the Nursing Home staff encouraged, enabled, or ignored [the husband’s] tendency to tow [his wife] using their wheelchairs.”
A dissenting opinion to the majority opinion stated: “I would find that the Nursing Home demonstrated a conscious disregard for [the wife’s] safety because it was aware that [her husband] was pulling [her] along with his belt, yet the record reveals that the Nursing Home did nothing to prevent it from happening again. In fact, it was so common place that the Nursing Home employees had a name for it — “towing.” Right before the incident occurred, [the husband’s and wife’s nurse] testified that she shouted out to [the husband] that “towing” was not safe. However, [the nurse] did not intervene and stop the “towing,” nor did the other employees who were in the hallway as [the husband and wife] passed by them. Nursing Home employees testified that [the husband] has “towed” [his wife] before and this conduct was not safe, yet they continued to allow it to happen. The Nursing Home demonstrated that it tolerated this unsafe behavior by not preventing [the husband] from repeatedly “towing” [his wife]. The Nursing Home did not have an employee accompany [the husband and wife] to the dining hall, and there was no reprimand to employees after this incident. For these reasons, I would find that the trial court properly allowed the punitive damages claim to go to the jury.”
Source Lang v. Beachwood Pointe Care Ctr., 2017-Ohio-1550
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