I was interested to see a recent decision about the culpability of a nursing home’s management in the death of a resident. As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I believe nursing home management has a strong connection to the quality of the care at the home, because management decisions like staffing levels, training for new staff members and more has a direct effect on the staff’s ability and willingness to give quality care. For example, some states have laws requiring a registered nurse to be on the premises at all times because an RN has more training and experience than the lowest-level aides. The advantages are clear, but the laws are necessary because not every nursing home company wants to pay the higher salary an RN can command. In Wilson v. Americare Systems Inc., the Tennessee Supreme Court reinstated a jury verdict, finding there was material evidence that management decisions played a role in a patient’s death.
Mable Frances Farrar, a retired schoolteacher, was in good health at age 83 except for occasional constipation problems. She was hospitalized for four days in 2003 for constipation and spent two months afterward at a nursing home to regain her strength. She was then admitted to Celebration Way, the assisted living home that is the subject of this case. Her doctor prescribed a daily dose of the over-the-counter laxative MiraLAX and instructed the home to contact her if Farrar became constipated. Evidence showed that Farrar got far less MiraLAX than prescribed, including none at all one month. When she became constipated in May of 2004, the doctor ordered four enemas a day. She got one enema that day and none the next day. Her daughters visited the day after and requested an enema; the nurse who administered it told colleagues she was doing it so Farrar “would shit and shut up.”
Unfortunately, this nurse administered the enema without checking Farrar for signs of an obstructed bowel, for which an enema is not appropriate. The enema perforated her colon, and she died at the hospital that day. Her daughters sued the nurse, the manager in charge, the owner of the home and its contract management company, Americare, which they alleged failed to provide adequate staffing levels, training or skilled personnel to handle Farrar’s care. The jury found Americare 50 percent at fault for the death, for failure to provide sufficient personnel, and ordered $5 million in punitive damages. On appeal, however, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed, finding there was no material evidence that Americare’s staffing decisions caused Farrar’s death.
The decision was reversed again at the Tennessee Supreme Court, reinstating the damages. The high court found that there was sufficient material evidence permitting the jury to reach the verdict it reached. Deposition testimony established that the staffing was insufficient, that Americare knew about it and that it couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the extra staff needed. The high court said the evidence was also sufficient to support the inference that the quality of care suffered as a result; testimony established that non-licensed staff members were asked to do work that nurses should do or the work went undone for lack of a nurse. Expert testimony sufficiently established that this violated standards of care, the court said. Thus, it found there was material evidence supporting the jury’s finding, and reinstated the verdict against Americare.
As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I strongly agree with the jury that the standard of care was not met in this case. Understaffing is, unfortunately, a well-known problem with nursing homes, particularly private homes that are under pressure to make a profit. Staff members cost money; well-qualified staff members like an RN cost a lot of money. As a result, homes may be tempted to cut corners on staff–but this sometimes means a substantial reduction in quality of care. When staff members in a nursing home are stretched too thin, they are more likely to forget things or skip things that seem unimportant. They also don’t have time to notice small problems that could progress into serious forms of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse, such as bedsores, dehydration or medication mistakes. These are classic warning signs that I look for in my work as a Philadelphia injury lawyer.
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