In a previous blog post, we discussed a 2011 jury verdict that awarded approximately $92 million to the family of a patient who suffered abuse during a 3 week term at a West Virginia nursing home called Heartland Nursing Home, which is owned by a corporation called Manor Care. A relatively small amount of the jury award accounted for ordinary negligence in the nursing home’s actual poor medical care and negligence in failing to adequately feed and hydrate the patient. A whopping $80 million of that award accounted for punitive damages. An obstacle to enforcement of the jury award was found in West Virginia’s professional liability laws that limit non-economic damages (i.e. punitive damages, as opposed to more easily quantifiable medical costs), to $500,000, which was obviously well below the award given by the jury. When we last discussed this case, it had crept its way to the state Supreme Court to determine the issue of whether or not the verdict was appropriate under the half million dollar cap for professional liability. To date that question has not yet been answered while other in-state nursing home negligence claims lay dormant awaiting a ruling before proceeding to their own jury awards.
Just recently, the West Virginia Supreme Court weighed in on this case and did not throw out or reduce the sentence on the basis of the professional liability limitation. Instead, the high court upheld $37 million of the $92 million awarded to the plaintiff’s family, thus reducing it by $65 million. The plaintiff suffered as a result of neglect because the facility was significantly understaffed, which apparently led to the patient’s death from a lack of adequate care. Heartland and Manor Care also allegedly lied and withheld evidence about the understaffing, which shows just how negligent certain nursing homes are of patient’s well-being. Nursing homes often understaff on purpose in order to avoid paying additional salaries and wages so that the management company can keep that money as extra profit. This greed to make extra money does not just hurt anyone else financially, but actually puts patients’ health and their lives at risk. Without the proper attention, many become sicker and many die.
Still refusing to accept this defeat, Manor Care filed appeal on the basis that the jury’s verdict did not comport with the evidence. It also argued that the trial judge erred in deciding certain legal questions throughout the proceedings. The appeal, as mentioned made its way to the highest court of the state.
Now, the West Virginia Supreme Court has reduced that jury award from $92 million to $37 million. While $37 million is an incredible sum of money to most people, the decrease by $65 million in some ways arguably takes away from the punishment that the jury clearly felt the nursing home and its corporate owner deserved for its neglect of the victim patient and its willingness to cover up information to avoid liability. Of course trials must proceed without legal errors on the part of the presiding judge, and decisions should always comport with the weight of evidence. And it is still telling that Manor Care will still have to pay up to the tune of $37 million. It would be interesting to see if a higher award, such as the original $92 million, would create a greater deterrent, or merely boil down to writing a check and going on with continuous neglect and cover ups.
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