Pennsylvania Supreme Court Permits Suits Against Nursing Home Parent Company and Affiliates - Scampone v. Highland Park Care Center
A major issue for Pennsylvania nursing home lawyers like me is the ability to sue the nursing home's parent company as well as the home itself and individual employees. Many Pennsylvania nursing home abuse cases involve issues of understaffing or under-training, or negligent hiring, all of which can stem from poor decisions by the nursing home company. In Scampone v. Highland Park Care Center LLC, the estate of Madeline Scampone made these kinds of allegations against Highland Park Care Center and Grane Healthcare, alleging they had been directly negligent as well as indirectly negligent through the actions of their employees. Highland Park was the Pittsburgh-area nursing home where Scampone died; Grane was the management services company for Highland Park. The trial court granted a nonsuit for Grane, finding insufficient evidence of its liability, but the appeals court reversed and the Supreme Court upheld that.
Scampone lived at Highland Park from 1998 until her death in 2004, undergoing treatment for dementia, high blood pressure, lung disease and osteoporosis. Between June 2002 and January 2004, she was admitted to the hospital five times for urinary tract infections. During the final hospitalization, she was also admitted for malnutrition, dehydration, bedsores and an acute myocardial infarction. She died in early February. Her son, acting on behalf of her estate, later alleged in the lawsuit that Highland Park and Grane themselves were negligent, as well as responsible for the negligence of their employees. The trial included testimony from former employees that they lacked the time to follow care orders for Scampone or ensure that she had adequate food, water, medicine and activity; witnesses said staff members failed to follow doctors' orders.
At the end of this testimony, Grane moved for a nonsuit and received it; Highland Park also received a nonsuit on punitive damages. However, the Superior Court reversed, finding sufficient evidence to support direct and vicarious liability for Grane and punitives for Highland Park. Both corporate entities appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
That court upheld the lower court, but with different reasoning, finding that a resident like Scampone may have a valid claim for corporate negligence against the nursing home and related entities. It rejected arguments that nursing home companies cannot be liable for direct negligence because they work through their employees and officers, saying it had recognized a direct duty in the past and that vicarious liability is an insufficient substitute. Nor did the high court believe the nursing home's argument that its own caselaw limited corporate direct liability to hospitals. The proper question in this case, the court said, was whether evidence showed the kind of relationship between Scampone and the defendants to give rise to a duty of care. Because the trial court did not make its decision on that basis, the Supreme Court said, the case must be remanded to make that determination and conduct any resulting trial.
As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I am very pleased to see the state's highest court reject arguments that would have exempted nursing homes from liability in Pennsylvania. Though the court made its decision according to its caselaw rather than what it perceived as good public policy, I believe it's good public policy to retain nursing home companies' accountability for wrongdoing. Nursing home companies don't like to be sued, so if they know a suit is a strong possibility, they're more likely to prevent any unsafe behavior. This may be the wrong reason to do the right thing, but the end result will be better protection for the elderly and disabled people in Pennsylvania nursing homes. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I believe these vulnerable patients are owed the strongest regulatory scheme we can devise.