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Jury in Nursing Home Abuse Case Awards $91.5 Million to Son of Woman Who Died of Dehydration

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I was pleased to see a large jury award in a case of alleged severe neglect in Pennsylvania’s neighboring state of West Virginia. According to the Charleston Gazette, jurors in Kanawha County awarded $91.5 million to the family of a woman who died of complications from dehydration. Dorothy Douglas died at the age of 87 after spending three weeks at Heartland of Charleston. Attorneys for her son, Tom Douglas, alleged that parent company ManorCare Inc. (which is itself owned by an equity company called Carlyle Group) intentionally kept the staff to patient ratios at Heartland very low to save money. They alleged the very low staffing levels, and the extremely high turnover rates they produced, had a side effect of making it difficult to properly care for patients with difficulty eating and drinking on their own, like Dorothy Douglas.

Dorothy Douglas came to Heartland from her son’s home, where she could walk and talk a little despite suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. The family was using Heartland as a short-term home before a spot at a home for dementia patients opened up. But in the three weeks Douglas was at Heartland, they said she lost 15 pounds, became unresponsive and was confined to a wheelchair. By the time she left for the new nursing home, she was covered in bruises, sores and scabs, and her mouth was encrusted from what the attorneys said was dehydration. She died in the hospital one day after the transfer. Attorneys for Tom Douglas said Heartland had a 112 percent turnover rate, in part because the low staffing levels made it hard to properly care for patients. Heartland attorneys said the death certificate for Douglas cited dementia, not dehydration, as the cause of death; and that she refused to eat or drink. West Virginia state inspectors cited Heartland for 28 deficiencies between February of 2010 and April of 2011, more than double the statewide average of 13. The Carlyle Group has said it will appeal.

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I’m pleased that this case is so high-profile locally, because it might make Charleston-area residents think twice about putting their loved ones in a home that apparently has very high turnover. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for nursing home patients to have trouble getting nutrition and water. Older people sometimes lose their sense of thirst, which means nursing home staff members must urge them to drink and make drinking convenient. The situation is even worse for patients who have dementia that makes them forget to eat, or physical disabilities that make eating and swallowing difficult. In all of these cases, nursing home workers need to work closely with the patients to ensure they eat and drink, helping them when necessary. This is difficult work even under good conditions.

When a home is too understaffed for workers to do basic parts of their job, tasks like helping residents remember to drink water can fall by the wayside (since younger, healthy people can forget how important this is). At severe enough levels of understaffing, Pennsylvania nursing home abuse and neglect become much more likely. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I believe homes should be required to address these issues, preferably before they create a tragedy like this one.

Rosenbaum & Associates represents families that lost a loved one or suffered severe injuries to a vulnerable person in a nursing home, due to neglect or abuse. If your family has suffered this kind of injury and you’d like to discuss your legal options, call us today at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 or send us a message online.

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