Judges in our court system are stewards of a long tradition of the search for truth and justice, and have been tasked with the important priorities of ensuring that all parties that go before them follow the rules, receive access to due process, and otherwise have a fair and impartial opportunity to prove or defend their respective case. So when there is a conflict of interest, or at least a perceived conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety involving a judge, it is the common and necessary practice for that judge to recuse him or herself from the case and allow an objective judge to oversee it. Such is now the issue that a judge in West Virginia finds herself dealing with in a nursing home case that has already ended.
HCR ManorCare, a nursing home company, previously faced accusations in West Virginia state court that one of its nursing homes was grossly negligent in its care of a patient, and that the patient died as a result, having experienced pressure ulcers and frequently falls during their stay at the facility. A jury verdict in this elder abuse wrongful death case awarded $91 million to the family of the deceased patient. And then subsequent to that, the company settled a separate case for an undisclosed and confidential amount. The nursing home company had appealed to the Supreme Court claiming that state law caps medical malpractice awards (we had previously covered this issue going to the Supreme Court in West Virginia).
The Supreme Court’s ruling effectively reduced the amount to a $38 million settlement (by taking punitive damages down from $80 million to just under $32 million), thus lowering what the nursing home company would have paid out by well over $50 million. The high court did not ultimately throw out punitive damages as the company would have hoped, and the appeal was also brought under the premise that non-economic damages also must be capped to a quarter million dollars (and in some situations a half million dollars) under state law. The majority of the court engaged what a dissenting justice called a results-oriented analysis that had no legitimate basis.
News later broke that the husband of the Supreme Court Justice that authored the majority opinion, had made a transaction for an airplane with the plaintiff’s attorney in this case. The husband sold a Learjet to the attorney for approximately $1.35 million. On top of this, it was reported that the attorney also had helped fundraise for the Justice’s election campaign in 2012, cutting his own check for her in the amount of $1,000 and helping to bring in another $35,000 to the campaign.
Such business dealings as well as political fundraising could imply that there is a conflict of interest or at least an appearance of impropriety given that the Justice here could have potentially been biased toward the plaintiffs as a result of her husband’s dealings with the plaintiff’s attorney. The appearance of impropriety is of course notable not just for the amount plaintiffs would receive, but because that plaintiff’s attorney would receive a hefty chunk of it in attorney’s fees amounting to about $17 million. The Justice has denied any wrongdoing or that she was improperly influenced because the transaction had nothing to do with her and she knew nothing specific of it.
While not opining on the particular matter, this is a wake-up call for so many to be vigilant in our justice system for any case, including those related to nursing home companies. This is particularly so when such cases go to appeals and eventually a state’s high court for a ruling that could have tremendous implications and consequences for other nursing home-related cases in the future.
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