Appeals Court Rules Jury Instructions Proper in Death of Nursing Home Patient - Freudeman v. Landing of Canton


January 8, 2013

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I know that families seeking justice and compensation through a lawsuit have a hard road ahead. Part of that process is proving that a death or serious injury took place because of the nursing home's negligence -- but when the death took place without a witness, this may be very hard to prove. In Freudeman v. Landing of Canton, Dennis Freudeman alleged that his mother, Dorothy Freudeman, was permanently brain-injured when a staff member at her nursing home gave her anti diabetic medication by accident. Dorothy Freudeman spent 15 months semicomatose after the mistaken medicine caused hypoglycemia, and eventually died. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a res ipsa loquitur jury instruction given because Freudeman couldn't prove how she got the medication.

Dorothy Freudeman was a resident at the eastern Ohio nursing home The Landing of Canton from 2001 to 2007, when she was 80. She suffered from Parkinson's disease, detention and the effects of a 2001 stroke, but no history of diabetes or hypoglycemia. She was able to walk, groom herself, use the restroom and feed herself before July 5, 2007. On that day, a Landing employee found her in an unresponsive state. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with very low blood sugar causing brain dysfunction. Doctors suspected she'd mistakenly been given anti-diabetic medication and ordered a test, but it was never performed. She was semi-comatose from that day until she died in October of 2008. Her son sued Landing, alleging she was given anti-diabetic medication, and presented evidence that Landing was routinely negligent in handling medicine. The court gave the jury a res ipsa loquitur instruction over Landing's objection, and the jury ultimately awarded more than $2 million to the family.

Landing appealed both the res ipsa loquitur instruction and the high punitive damages award. Most plaintiffs must be able to cite specific actions by the defendant to prove negligence, but a res ipsa loquitur instruction permits the jury to infer neglect from circumstantial evidence. Furthermore, the Sixth Circuit said, the jury instructions were structured so that the jury had to find that the injury was caused by anti-diabetic medication before it could apply res ipsa. Because it did so find, the court said, Landing's arguments that the injury's cause was disputed or could have come from another source are without merit. It also rejected an argument that the cause of the injury was not under Landing's exclusive control, noting that Landing controlled or should have controlled all medications in the facility. And, the Sixth said, this is an appropriate case for res ipsa loquitur because the plaintiffs were unable to ascertain the cause of Freudeman's injury. However, the appeals court did reduce the punitive damages award, finding that while punitives were appropriate, Ohio law has a damages cap that limits it to twice what the estate was awarded -- not the estate and each of the decedent's children.

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I'm always disappointed to see a jury's choices disregarded because of an arbitrary damages cap. A damages cap is much beloved by nursing homes and other potential defendants because it takes away the power of a jury to hand down the penalty it feels is appropriate. Regardless of the circumstances, the jury may not "send a message" any higher than the arbitrary number picked by the state legislature. However, the decision on the jury instructions is pleasing. When someone dies because of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse, that person may die in the care of the nursing home responsible for the death. That makes it very hard to independently verify what happened, since the only potential witness is adverse to the claim. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I appreciate that this jury instruction is available when the circumstances make presenting a fuller body of evidence impossible.

If you believe your family suffered a death or a serious injury because of a nursing home's negligence, don't wait to call Rosenbaum & Associates. For a free, confidential consultation, you can reach us through our website or call 1-800-7-LEGAL-7.

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