Report Reveals Coroners Often Miss Deaths Attributable to Nursing Home Abuse


January 4, 2012

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was saddened but not surprised to read a new report detailing how many cases of elder abuse and Pennsylvania nursing home abuse often fall through the cracks. The investigative journalism organization ProPublica published a report Dec. 21 on the rarity of investigations into suspicious deaths of elderly Americans. According to the article, part of the problem is that older people's deaths are not unusual, and therefore not given the scrutiny that would be given to a younger person's death. Coroners may assume that older people died of natural causes without looking into it, especially with nursing home patients. However, the investigators found that coroners are under-funded and rely too heavily on doctors' reports on death certificates. In many states, doctors may sign death certificates without viewing the body, allowing nursing homes to cover up the true reason for a death even when a casual glance at the body reveals it.

That was the case in the death of William Neff, who died at 83 while he was in an assisted living home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When he died, the home told its doctor that "failure to thrive" due to dementia was the cause, and that's what the doctor put on the death certificate. But when Neff's relatives moved his body to a funeral home, the director preparing Neff's body for burial noticed broken ribs and a 16-inch bruise on one side. Rather than continuing preparations, the director contacted the Bucks County coroner's office, which determined that Neff died of a lung puncture caused by one of five broken ribs, caused by some kind of violent impact. A criminal investigation of the home eventually revealed that Neff was beaten to death by home employee Heidi Tenzer, who was later convicted of third-degree murder. Three other employees were convicted of related crimes. In other cases profiled in the article, homes used natural causes to cover up the effects of neglect, including deep, severe bedsores; misuse of antipsychotic drugs; dehydration; infections; and disease.

As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I know any of those conditions would raise serious questions about the nursing home's quality of care and safety. Pressure sores in particular (also known as bedsores) are a serious issue because they require frequent attention and go unattended far more often than they should. The abuse described at the Bucks County nursing home is even more troubling because there's no way that Neff's abuse could be attributed to mistakes or overwork; he was literally beaten to death. To make matters worse, the article reports that Neff had speech problems because of his Alzheimer's, meaning he likely couldn't speak up about any previous abuse. The case resulted in several criminal prosecutions. As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I hope it also sparked a state investigation into the quality of that home's care, in order to protect other vulnerable residents -- and close scrutiny by the families of other residents.

Based in Philadelphia, Rosenbaum & Associates represents clients across eastern Pennsylvania whose loved ones suffered serious injuries or illness due to neglect or abuse at a nursing home. To learn more or set up a free consultation, send us an email or call today at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7.

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