Verdict of $91.5 Million Awarded in West Virginia Nursing Home Neglect Case
The son of an 87-year-old woman who died after being severely dehydrated following a brief stay in a nursing home was awarded $91.5 million, including $80 million in punitive damages, by a West Virginia jury. The wrongful death award was subsequently reduced by approximately $500,000 pursuant to the state’s statutory damage caps.
The woman’s son, Tom Douglas, alleged in his complaint that he decided to temporarily place his mother, Dorothy Douglas, in the Heartland of Charleston, a ManorCare Facility, (“ManorCare”), while awaiting a permanent nursing home spot to open in another location. Douglas alleged that he was no longer able to care for his mother on his own due to her progressively worsening medical conditions. At the time that she was admitted in 2009, Ms. Douglas was fully capable of speaking and had the ability to move around to a limited degree.
Referred to as a “house of horrors”, within twenty days after admission into the nursing home, Ms. Douglas suddenly became unable to communicate, feed herself and move around with the assistance of a walker. In other words, Ms. Douglas became bed-bound and completely unresponsive.
Upon being transferred to a permanent nursing home facility, the staff became immediately alarmed by her deteriorating condition and subsequently called 911. According to plaintiff’s attorney, Michael J. Fuller, Ms. Douglas was “severely dehydrated.” Moreover, a nurse from the facility testified that the decedent had “black necrotic crud in her mouth”.
Soon thereafter, Ms. Douglas died. In response, her son and daughter sued ManorCare in a wrongful death action, alleging that it had negligently failed to provide their mother with basic care, including proper hydration. Notwithstanding, the nursing home countered that Ms. Douglas died as a natural result of her existing illnesses and not due to the negligence on the part of the facility. In addition, they asserted that the facility was staffed above the state minimum required by law and acted “appropriately in providing the proper care for [Ms. Douglas].”
Ultimately, the jury found the defendant’s counterarguments to be unavailing, returning a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in only two hours. Before the case was brought to trial, the nursing home attempted to settle the matter; however, the plaintiff was unwilling to compromise in this regard. To Douglas, “it wasn’t about the money,” noted Fuller. It was about the fact that ManorCare should not be able to throw a little money his way and continue to neglect and abuse residents.
During trial, both the plaintiff and defendant presented expert opinions regarding the cause of Ms. Douglas’ death; however, the woman’s treating physician provided the most compelling testimony in this regard. Specifically, Ms. Douglas’ physician was able to persuade the jury that she died due to dehydration and not because of an ancillary medical condition. In other words, her physician stated that she was expected to live for at least few more years before being admitted to ManorCare. Instead, she perished in a little over a month.
After two weeks, the jury awarded Douglas $5 million for wrongful death, $5 million for breach of fiduciary duty, $1.5 million for violations to his mother’s civil rights, and $80 million in punitive damages. The jury determined that 20% of the wrongful death award was due to professional negligence and the remaining 80% was the result of ordinary negligence. Due to the fact that professional negligence awards are capped in West Virginia at $500,000, Douglas’ total award was subsequently reduced by this amount.
At this time, ManorCare continues to maintain its innocence and states that it plans on appealing the case. Post-trial motions have already been filed in the matter and arguments were expected to be heard in February, 2013.
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