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Question of Immunity for Nursing Home Likely Headed to Appeals Court

In a recent post we highlighted a fascinating case that is set to go to the Connecticut Supreme Court regarding a private nursing home that has been providing services to parolees under a contract with the state, which is actually mandated through a state law. That nursing home has asserted that it benefits from sovereign immunity as a contractor to the state, even though it is still a private facility and holds all of its own assets as a private entity. In the category of immunity, a different but nevertheless interesting case has come out of the state of Arkansas. This particular case addresses a state law that provides certain exemptions for charities, and which a nursing home is invoking to avoid liability to a family suing for a family member’s death at the facility.

Understanding Immunity

In Arkansas, the law provides for what is called charitable immunity protection under the Arkansas Nonprofit Corporation Act of 1993 and subsequent court cases interpreting the scope and bounds of the immunity provision. A charitable immunity protection essentially provides immunity to charities, which can by definition include certain nursing homes, from lawsuits specifically for torts committed by the organization or institution’s employees or agents. The bottom line is that these organizations simply cannot be sued.

The long-standing public policy argument in favor of such a statute, which as the article indicates most states have done away with over time, is to protect these charities so that they can continue to operate free of a threat to their financial existence and assets since they do not operate for profit in the first place. For these organizations, a single lawsuit could mean closing the doors. As reported, the state Supreme Court, the highest court in the state, has previously invoked this exemption in the context of a hospital providing free care. Also in 2008, in a similar context, a federal court in Arkansas also dismissed a case under the exemption.

The courts have continued to apply the exemption to certain healthcare-related charities or organizations performing charitable work, like hospitals and nursing homes. Opponents and critics would naturally point to the fact that under this exemption, while nursing homes providing care for free seems to be a noble mission of charity and helping others, these facilities can operate free of liability, and whether they operate for profit or not they must provide a certain quality of care to patients.

In the present case, a deceased patient’s family has sued their relative’s nursing home for neglect after the state’s crime lab reported that he died as a result of choking. The family also saw photographs showing “fresh cuts” on his face, further indicating some possible form of abuse or at least neglect that allowed for the injuries to occur. Consequently, the patient’s family sued the nursing home for wrongful death. In response, the facility has moved to dismiss the claims on the basis that as an institution providing charitable care, it was immune from such lawsuits. The plaintiff family in this case intends to appeal the dismissal, and the appeals court will have the opportunity to make a significant ruling as to the qualifications required to determine whether a healthcare provider can meet the strictures to be eligible for the exemption, and such a ruling could possibly erode the exemption or keep it strong. There also would be no surprise of lobbying were to take root to push the legislature to repeal this law for good.

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