Last year, I wrote here about a very large jury verdict in West Virginia, for the family of a woman who died of alleged neglect after just 15 days in a nursing home. So, as a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was interested to see a new development in that case. According to WOWK, the parent company of the nursing home Heartland of Charleston has succeeded in having its appeal considered by the West Virginia Supreme Court. The company's appeal granted a request to suspend enforcement of the trial court's judgment while it considers whether there were errors in the jury verdict form used in the case. The case gained local media attention because the Kanawha County jury awarded $91.5 million to the family of Dorothy Douglas, finding she died at least in part because of neglect during her short stay at Heartland of Charleston.
The family had placed Douglas in Heartland as a temporary measure while they waited for a spot in a dementia-specific home to open up. She suffered from Alzheimer's with dementia, Parkinson's disease and other conditions, but was able to walk and talk a little before moving to the home. The family contended in its lawsuit that staff at Heartland neglected her needs so badly that she lost 15 pounds and became unresponsive during her stay there. Staff allegedly also confined her to a wheelchair, saying she was at risk of falls. Douglas died not long after her transfer out of Heartland. Her family says the cause of death was severe dehydration and other neglect, though the home and its lawyers point to the death certificate saying the cause of death was dementia. Her family's attorneys argued that with a turnover rate of 112 percent, Heartland didn't have the staff to care for Douglas or others properly; and that indeed, its business model revolved around keeping costs low by keeping staffing ratios low. It had more than double the state's average number of citations from February 2010 to April 2011.
According to the article, Heartland and its for-profit parent companies are asking the state high court to consider alleged mistakes in a jury verdict form. The article did not discuss what those mistakes were or how they would affect the jury's determination of the verdict. An attorney for the Douglas family said the nursing home companies had opposed another jury verdict form near the end of the trial, and ended up working from the family's proposed verdict form. That attorney also said the defendants had improperly used the jury verdict form to bring up certain legal issues for the first time. This is not permitted in appeals of lawsuits, he noted; trial courts must be given a chance to hear objections and the reasons for them so it can correct mistakes. The article also mentioned that the Douglas case has driven controversy over whether medical-malpractice damage caps should apply to nursing home cases, with this court splitting from another county circuit court on the issue.
As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I'd welcome an investigation of that issue. As a rule, plaintiffs in Pennsylvania nursing home abuse lawsuits don't have to file medical malpractice claims, though some do; nursing home abuse claims are generally for negligence. Some nursing home defendants are not medical professionals and cannot be sued for medical malpractice in any case. Indeed, this is sometimes a problem with the care at a bad home -- inadequate training or experience for the jobs staff members must do. I also look forward, as a Philadelphia injury lawyer, to hearing about the outcome of this jury verdict form appeal. If the family's attorney is correct, much of the appeal will be simply disregarded by the West Virginia Supreme Court, making all of this much ado about not much.