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Jury Awards $200 Million in Death of Florida Woman From Nursing Home Neglect

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was interested to see a record-setting verdict in a Florida case involving serious neglect of a 92-year-old woman. According to the Tampa Bay Times, a jury in Tampa Bay has awarded $200 million to Richard Nunziata, the adult son of Elvira Nunziata, who died in 2004 when she fell down a staircase while strapped into a wheelchair. Nunziata was in the early stages of dementia and prone to wandering; the nursing home was supposed to have alarms on the door, her clothing and the wheelchair. But the employees at the home reportedly disabled the alarm so they could take frequent smoking breaks, according to the newspaper. Unusually, the nursing home company did not defend itself, in part because its several related business entities had gone out of business.

Nunziata was a resident at Pinellas Park Care and Rehab Center in St. Petersburg. One afternoon, she disappeared from a group of residents, and an hour passed before staff members noticed. When they checked the emergency exit door, they found her at the bottom of a staircase, her bloody body still strapped to the wheelchair. She died just after paramedics arrived. The Pinellas Park nursing home had a history of deficiency citations and abuse complaints, according to the newspaper. At trial, former employees testified that the home was frequently understaffed and that the door alarm was routinely disabled by smokers. They also told the jury that Nunziata had fallen before and was known to wander. The jury award for $60 million in compensatory damages and $140 million in punitive damages is believed among the largest in the state of Florida.

The for-profit nursing home’s management company, Trans Health Management Inc., did not defend itself in court; its parent company is in a receivership in Maryland. An attorney representing Trans Health filed unsuccessfully to stop the trial three days before it was scheduled to begin. However, the Tampa Bay Times noted Feb. 5 that collecting on the judgment may be difficult. That’s because the assets and liabilities of the nursing home have been separated into a set of companies — many using the same phone number and office building as Trans Health — whose legal relationships will have to be sorted out in court. In fact, the company that inherited the liabilities has disappeared without filing tax returns, the newspaper said. The nursing home abuse attorneys for Nunziata’s estate said these companies existed only to strip away assets and protect the defendants from liability, and the real owners are a series of private investors.

This kind of corporate shell game is not unknown to Philadelphia injury lawyers like me. For-profit nursing homes are increasingly using corporate law to shield themselves from the consequences of their own negligence. To collect on a Pennsylvania nursing home abuse verdict, plaintiffs frequently must do some detective work — the Nunzata case involved testimony from a forensic accountant — and pursue entities that may be far away from the home in question. As the newspaper noted, even the federal General Accounting Office could not determine which of the corporate entities attached to the six biggest nursing home chains were in charge of what. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I oppose this because it prevents injured families like Nunziata’s from collecting on debts they are legally owed — debts ordered by a court after a fair trial.

If your family has suffered a death or a serous injury or illness because of abuse or neglect in a Pennsylvania nursing home, don’t hesitate to call Rosenbaum & Associates to discuss how we can help. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us an email or call 1-800-7-LEGAL-7.

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