New Jersey Nursing Home Immune From Lawsuits as Charitable Organization - Griffin v. Bayshore Medical Center


August 15, 2011

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I was interested to read about a personal injury case against a nursing home that could not go forward -- not because the case was weak, but because nonprofit nursing homes are immune from many lawsuits in New Jersey. Edward Griffin et al. v. Bayshore Medical Center et al. brought two similar and related claims by two people injured in the same way at the Bayshore Nursing Home. Edward Griffin died of complications from a fall he took outside the home after he tripped on a protruding piece of sidewalk. Philomena Papa fell over the same protrusion about five month later and suffered permanent injuries. Papa, her husband, and the estate and son of Griffin sued the home and its associated corporate entities, but the Superior Court of New Jersey's Appellate Division found the home was immune under New Jersey's Charitable Immunities Act.

Griffin, 91, was on his way to visit his wife in the home when he tripped and fell on Oct. 16, 2007. The fall broke his C2 vertebra and landed him in the intensive care unit, where he stayed until his death the following Nov. 6. Papa, 86, was on her way to visit her husband in the home when she fell and broke several bones, including her kneecap and the orbit bone of one eye. She now relies on a cane. Both families brought their complaints in one suit naming Bayshore Medical Center, Bayshore Community Hospital and Bayshore Health Care and Rehabilitation Center. Bayshore Health Care Center is a nonprofit organization and part of a group of entities that also includes Bayshore Community Hospital. Bayshore Rehabilitation Systems Inc., however, is for profit. Despite the similar names and being located on the same road, the nursing home's parent entity said it was not related to Bayshore Rehabilitation Systems, and extensive discovery could not connect them. The trial court therefore granted summary judgment to the defendants and denied a cross-motion to file a new amended complaint.

Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that there was a genuine issue as to whether Bayshore Rehabilitation Systems made the nursing home a for-profit entity not entitled to protection under the Charitable Immunities Act. The Appellate Division disagreed. It noted that summary judgment was granted 13 months after the claim was originally filed, and after "a no doubt diligent search" by the plaintiffs that failed to come up with anything. The mere existence of a for-profit corporation with a similar name did not cast doubt on that status. Thus, there was no genuine issue of material fact to try. The court also denied their argument that they should have been granted leave to amend their complaint to allege gross negligence and recklessness, which would have given them an opportunity to avoid the Charitable Immunities Act. Gross negligence, the court said, is "wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of others" -- and it disagreed that failure to fix the protruding sidewalk qualifies as grossly negligent or reckless. The sidewalk protrusion of an inch and a half simply does not qualify, the court noted. Thus, it upheld both of the trial court's rulings.

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I'm disappointed that these plaintiffs were unable to get their day in court. It should surprise no one that many of the visitors to a nursing home are older people themselves, because they are the loved ones of older people -- their spouses, brothers and sisters and friends as well as children and grandchildren. For older people, a trip and fall that a child might shake off can be life-changing, because it can cause injuries that rob them of their independence. As Griffin's family discovered, it can even be fatal if the victim is unlucky enough to fall on the head or neck. Leaving dangerous conditions like a tripping hazard unfixed is not Pennsylvania nursing home abuse as families normally think of it, but it is certainly dangerous and highly avoidable. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I'm glad Pennsylvania does not recognize a charitable immunities defense.

If your family has suffered a death or a serious injury because of a nursing home's neglect or abuse, don't hesitate to call the nursing home attorneys at Rosenbaum & Associates. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us an email or call 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 toll-free today.

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