Hall v. Episcopal Long Term Care

I was recently reading Hall v. Episcopal Long Term Care, 54 A.3d 381 (Pa.Super. 2012). This case does a nice job of describing the deplorable conditions that we see in nursing home abuse cases, and the conditions that can lead to punitive damages and damages for corporate negligence.

Hall involved a resident who suffered from neglect while at the Philadelphia Nursing Home, which was managed by Episcopal Long Term Care. The resident died on January 17, 2005 from cerebral vascular disease.

The case went to trial in October 2010 on a survival claim of negligence. The plaintiff presented evidence that:

1) the decedent was left to sit in a soiled diaper for extended periods of time;

2) the nursing home had problems with staffing shortages, although the amount of staff members was increased during state inspections;

3) the decedent had a stage II wound on her ankle that was not documented on all forms;

4) the decedent experienced extreme pain during restorative care, but did not have a timely increase in her pain medication;

5) the nursing home had problems with mice and cockroaches;

6) residents were not properly cleaned and were left to sit in wet diapers and dried fecal matter for extended periods of time; and

7) the nursing home falsified patient care records.

The nursing home presented evidence that contradicted many of these claims.

The jury awarded $154,902.98 in compensatory damages to the decedent’s estate. The jury did not award punitive damages because the trial judge granted Episcopal’s motion for a directed verdict on that issue.

Both parties appealed multiple issues to the Superior Court. On the punitive damages issue, the Superior Court reversed. The court found that the issue should have been presented to the jury. The court stated, “[W]e conclude the Estate presented evidence establishing Episcopal acted in an outrageous fashion in reckless disregard to the rights of others and created an unreasonable risk of physical harm to the residents of the nursing home, particularly the deceased.”

Among other things, Episcopal argued that it was entitled to judgment on all claims of corporate negligence because there was not sufficient evidence of understaffing at the nursing home or that the staffing levels harmed the decedent. The court rejected this claim, citing testimony of former employees at the nursing home. Importantly, the court “disagree[d] with Episcopal that the fact state inspectors never cited the nursing home for any understaffing violation is dispositive.” The court also found the testimony of the former employees to be credible, although Episcopal argued that they were “disgruntled” and therefore not trustworthy.

The court rejected Episcopal’s other arguments and remanded the case for trial on the issue of punitive damages only.

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