WV Supreme Court reduces $90 million damage award in Douglas fam - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV Supreme Court reduces $90 million damage award in Douglas family's suit against Heartland Nursing Home, corporate family

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The West Virginia Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages awarded to the family of 87-year-old nursing home patient Dorothy Douglas, who died of malnourishment in 2009 after 19 days in a Charleston nursing home, by roughly $48 million, though not everyone agreed with how and why it was done.

Douglas's son, Tom, claimed his mother recognized her family, was able to communicate and get around with a walker when she entered Heartland Nursing Home in August 2009, though she suffered from dementia, Parkinson's and other health issues. Nineteen days later he said she was dehydrated, malnourished and bed-ridden, had fallen numerous times and had to be transferred to a nearby hospital, then to hospice where she died 18 days later. Douglas's treating physician said she died because of severe dehydration,but Heartland pointed out the death certificate lists dementia as the cause of her death.

Douglas subsequently filed suit, charging Heartland and its corporate family -- including Manor Care Inc.; HCR Manor Care Services, Inc.; Health Care and Retirement Corporation of America LLC; and Heartland Employment Services LLC -- with negligence, violations of the Nursing Home Act, an alleged breach of fiduciary duty and corporate negligence.

A circuit court jury in Kanawha County awarded Douglas's family nearly $12 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages after a 10-day trial. 

Manor Care appealed, claiming the Medical Professionals Liability Act should have shielded it from excessive judgments, that the punitive damage award was excessive and that Douglas shouldn't have been permitted to claim breach of fiduciary duty against a nursing home.

The court's 76-page opinion, released June 18, repeatedly referenced chronic staffing problems at Heartland Nursing Home and alleged efforts to conceal that problem from state inspectors.

"Instead of properly addressing the chronic understaffing of Heartland Nursing Home, (Manor Care) Companies attempted to conceal (it) by creating the appearance of adequate staff during times when the facility was being inspected, and by allowing its posted staffing data to incorrectly reflect higher levels of staff than were actually working," Chief Justice Robin Davis wrote for the majority. "Specifically demonstrated by the facts of this case, (Manor Care) Companies’ conduct inflicted egregious physical harm upon a weak and helpless woman who depended upon them for her care: egregious physical harm that ultimately cost this helpless woman her life."

The court posted its final ruling late Wednesday, June 18.

Ben Bailey of Bailey & Glasser, Charleston, who argued the appeal for HCR Manor Care, said his clients "appreciate the relief the Court has granted to this point."

"For now, we will be reviewing the majority’s 76 page opinion, and the accompanying concurrences and dissents, as both parties weigh their options," he said.

On appeal, the court agreed that the Medical Professionals Liability Act doesn't shield companies from the impact of budget and staffing decisions by non-health care companies.

"The evidence presented at trial was sufficient to establish that Heartland Nursing Home was chronically understaffed to the point that it was not able to provide even a life sustaining amount of water to Ms. Douglas during the 19 days she resided in that facility," Davis wrote. "Moreover, by virtue of complaints from staff, residents, and their families and surveys conducted by the State of West Virginia, MC Companies were made aware of the understaffing problem at Heartland Nursing Home in the months preceding Ms. Douglas’ admittance to the facility."

The court noted that MC Companies failed to increase the staff at Heartland Nursing Home, even though they knew understaffing was an issue. "Furthermore, and most troublesome, was the evidence that MC Companies attempted to conceal the fact that Heartland Nursing Home was understaffed by providing additional staff during times when the facility was being inspected," the court said.

The justices said the company's claims that a punitive damage award would effectively wipe out the profit of more than 500 of its nursing homes had opened the door for the lower court to take MC's $125 million punitive damages liability insurance policy into consideration.

"We find that, under the unique circumstances presented herein, the punitive damages award of approximately $32 million, which amounts to about a 7:1 ratio when compared to the amount of compensatory damages we have allowed in this opinion, is justified and does not violate due process," the majority said. "In the face of numerous complaints of understaffing made by residents of Heartland Nursing Home, their families and employees of Heartland, as well as negative results of surveys performed by the State of West Virginia, MC Companies refused to authorize the use of additional employees to ensure a staff sufficient to meet even the basic life-sustaining needs of its residents, who are among the most vulnerable and helpless citizens of West Virginia. MC Companies’ refusal to ensure that there was sufficient staff at Heartland Nursing Home to properly care for the needs of its residents, by either increasing staff or reducing the number of residents, implies that corporate profit was emphasized over the needs of residents."

If the punitive award doesn't satisfy Douglas, the court said he has 30 days to petition for a new trial on just the punitive damages.

Justice Margaret Workman, meanwhile, agreed with the majority, but in a concurrent opinion she expressed "staunch disagreement with the majority’s handling of the Nursing Home Act claim."

"The majority has inexplicably refused to address the central issue argued by the parties — the obvious duplicativeness of the award of damages thereunder — and in a startling abuse of appellate discretion, has simply thrown out the award ostensibly because it cannot make sense of it," she said. "While I agree that the verdict form in this matter was poorly constructed and is far from cogent, I am unaware of any legal authority which permits this Court to toss out a jury award like so much garbage simply because it claims to be confused by it. If the majority had simply addressed the issue as framed and argued by the parties, and as dictated by common sense, the same result would obtain without the majority looking positively silly."

Justice Brent Benjamin also concurred, but said he would reverse the circuit court and vacate the jury's award on punitive damages because the jury verdict form was "woefully inadequate" to serve as the legal basis for the court to sustain the "extraordinary damages" awarded Douglas.

And in his dissenting opinion, Justice Allen Loughry II described the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Douglas's death as "undeniably tragic," but chastised the majority for its "shockingly result-oriented analysis."

"Unfortunately for the majority, the fractured vote of this Court casts a glaring spotlight on the startlingly misguided reasoning employed throughout," Loughry said.

"...In this case, the majority recognizes that the trial court permitted improper claims to be presented to the jury but rather than remanding for a new trial, simply reduces the jury’s verdict according to its own perceptions of what the verdict should have been without any legal basis for its conclusions," he wrote.

Justice Menis Ketchum disqualified himself from hearing the appeal, and Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Alan D. Moats sat on temporary assignment.