In the fall of 2004, a 92-year-old nursing home resident pushed herself in her wheelchair through a door leading to a stairwell. She fell in the wheelchair down the flight of stairs and laid there for about an hour before she was found. She died from her injuries. It appears the victim was alive for a time after her fall and may have been saved if someone had found her sooner.
In 2005, her son filed a lawsuit on her behalf, which fially reached conclusion in early 2012 with a default judgment against the company that owned and operated the Pinellas Park Care and Rehab Center in northern Flrida (FL). Several factors appear to have caused both the injuries that led to her death and the jury’s decision to award such a large amount.
During the woman's stay at the nursing home, aides say the resident was known for trying to get outdoors because she enjoyed gardening. Unfortunately, this knowledge did not keep aides from turning off alarms that would alert someone to her wanderings. Four former staffers testified at trial that the room alarms were taken offline because the facility was sevrely understaffed.
Other alarms that were frequently disabled were the ones attached to the emergency stairwell doors. Aides who did not wish to wait for a slow elevator or wanted a smoke break often used the stairwells, so they disabled the alarms to avoid setting them off. If these alarms had not been disarmed, one of them may have saved the victim’s life by either preventing her fall, or at least alerting someone that she had fallen and required assistance.
The nursing home aides also suggested the woman had been sexually assaulted before her fall.
The award represents $60 million for compensatory damages and $140 for punitive damages – and was actually less than the $300 million sought by the victim’s estate. The compensatory damages are awarded to compensate for lost income, medical and funeral expenses and physical and emotional distress. Punitive damages are awarded to the plaintiff to punish the defendants in the hopes that they will not act in a similar manner in the future.
Whether victim’s estate will receive any of the $200 million awarded remains to be seen. But the verdict highlights several areas of growing concern for those who have loved ones residing in nursing homes:
- Often chronic understaffing, especially on weekends and holidays.
- Lack of interest in residents's well-being and burn-out of staffers.
- Slow or inadequate response to residents' injuries.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.