The West Virginia Supreme Court has taken up a case of nursing home negligence, after granting a writ of prohibition filed by the defendant nursing home. In 2010, a lawsuit in a Kanawha County Circuit Court led to a $91.5 million verdict against Manor Care, Inc.
The plaintiff in that case, Tom Douglas alleged that his 87-year-old mother, Dorothy Douglas, died from what was considered to be severe dehydration and neglect while in the nursing home’s care. Manor Care, Inc., in turn, argued that Mrs. Douglas’s death certificate showed that the cause of death was dementia. A jury in Kanawha County Circuit Court did not believe the defendant and returned a verdict finding that Manor Care, Inc. was in violation of the Nursing Home Act and responsible for ordinary and medical negligence, as well as violations of fiduciary duties. While $11 million of the $91.5 million was allocated for the death itself, $80 million was allocated to punish Manor Care, Inc. for misconduct.
By granting the writ of prohibition, the West Virginia Supreme Court stayed circuit court rulings on post-trial motions. Normally, grants of writs of prohibition are infrequent, but it was done in this case to address asserted errors in a previous jury verdict form. One big question raised by the verdict form was whether state liability caps should apply. It would depend upon whether the nursing home was considered a health care provider. If so, the caps would apply. The plaintiff’s attorney stated that the caps would not apply because Manor Care, Inc. provides its own insurance, unlike most health care providers. After review, the Supreme Court justices could either find no evidence of error, or they could determine that the verdict form was deficient. If the latter, the verdict form would be sent back to the Kanawha County Circuit Court.
Not long ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court dealt with another nursing home case with major implications. Then, the issue was whether the Federal Arbitration Act applied to a contract for nursing home care. The United States Supreme Court disagreed with the West Virginia Supreme Court’s verdict that the FAA did not apply, ultimately finding that the FAA preempted state law, which meant that people whose relatives were allegedly harmed by nursing homes had to go through arbitration rather than the courts for justice if the contract they signed so specified.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm hope that this issue plays out better for the countless families who must put their loved ones in nursing homes. While we are sympathetic to the idea that jury verdicts must be reasonable, we also strongly believe that entities charged with taking care of vulnerable people must be sent a message that negligence and misconduct are never to be permitted. Aside from pressure on legislators, that message can usually only be sent by a West Virginia wrongful death attorney charged with protecting the vulnerable loved one’s rights. Only in court can the full factual issues be discussed and weighed in on. While the $91.5 million verdict might seem unreasonable to some, after hearing the issues, the jury might have found that this was the only outcome that would truly send Manor Care, Inc. a message to never again mistreat patients.