A jury in Eureka, CA returned a verdict of $677 million against a huge, for profit, skilled nursing company who “takes care” of thousands of people due to the mistreatment of many of them. Spokesmen for big business immediately responded with outrage that this result was outlandish and called for changes in the tort system to prevent this off-the-wall result. The claim is that this will bankrupt the company and put 14,000 workers out of a job. This, of course, ignores the fact that the facilities in question will be taken over by another operator who will hire those same people (and, hopefully, some more, so the staffing can be adequate). Maybe these new operators will be a lot more patient-oriented so something like this does not happen to them.
As to the claim that this verdict was outrageous or outlandish or off the wall, consider this: there were 32,000 victims in 22 so-called skilled nursing facilities in California. That is an average verdict of $21,156.25 per victim. The trial in this case went on for about 7 months, so the defendants had lots of time to present their case. One witness, Cindy Cool, testified about going to visit her father, an Alzheimer’s patient, and finding him lying in urine-soaked clothing, time after time after time. The evidence was that the staffing ratios were not even up to the minimum required by the State, much less the stricter standards set by the Federal Government. After all, hiring nursing staff costs money and takes away from profits.
I have been in many skilled nursing facilities because a lot of the people I represent have been badly hurt and need those services. Some facilities are very good. Others stink and have patients being ignored all over the place. I recall one lady who was in the hall in a wheelchair with a 6- to 7-inch stalactite of drool hanging from her chin. How long should your loved one have to tolerate a stalactite of drool or urine-soaked clothes or a soiled bed for $21,145.25? Why would any good hearted person want to change the system to make it harder for people who are treated this way to get justice, not to mention harder to force those whose greed or incompetence cause this kind of inhumane treatment to be called on the carpet?
Right here in River City, one facility was closed by the State because the management and staff paid so little attention to their Alzheimer’s patients that two of them wandered off at night in the winter and were found dead of exposure the next day.
In some respects, Cindy Cool’s father was lucky, even though he was not in a good facility. He had a daughter who was devoted enough to drive from Blue Lake approximately 17 miles to Eureka to see her dad. Unfortunately, lots of people who wind up in these facilities do not have a Cindy to intervene for them. I cannot imagine what their lives are like, can you?
Dugan Barr has practiced law in Redding since 1967. He has tried more than 200 civil jury cases to verdict. He is married and has five children. The offices of Barr and Mudford, LLP, are at 1824 Court St. in Redding and can be reached at 243-8008.
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