Recently, the West Virginia Supreme Court heard the long-awaited appeal of a nursing home case where the jury verdict amounted to more than $90 million. The Supreme Court ended up reducing the punitive damages portion by nearly $50 million.
The facts began in 2009, when Dorothy Douglas was admitted to Heartland Nursing Home in Charleston. After less than three weeks, she became malnourished, dehydrated, bed ridden, and largely unresponsive. She also suffered from head trauma after falling numerous times. Douglas’s family eventually transferred her to a different nursing facility, before taking her to a hospice care facility, where she died 18 days after her departure from Heartland.
Douglas’s son, Tom Douglas, then filed a lawsuit against Manor Care, Inc., the company in charge of the nursing home. He claimed that Manor Care had acted negligent under the West Virginia Medical Professional Liability Act (MPLA), violations of the Nursing Home Act (NHA), corporate negligence, and a breach of fiduciary duty. After a 10-day trial, a jury in Kanawha County awarded Douglas $11.5 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages.
Manor Care then appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The company raised several issues, including the verdict form, the application of the NHA and MPLA, whether West Virginia recognized the breach of fiduciary duty claim, and whether the amount of punitive damages awarded was appropriate.
The Supreme Court invalidated two of the claims and the awards that accompanied them. Specifically, the justices ruled that Manor Care waived the issue of whether the verdict form was inadequate; that the verdict form did not allow a jury to award damages to those who were not parties; that the MPLA did not provide an exclusive remedy for the negligence claims; and that the NHA claim was governed by the MPLA, and since the preliminary requirements of an MPLA claim were not met, that claim would be dismissed, vacating an award of $1.5 million. The Supreme Court also ruled that the circuit court made a mistake in recognizing the breach of fiduciary duty claim, which meant that the claim was dismissed and the $5 million award vacated.
Finally, the Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages amount from $80 million to $32 million. The justices noted that this reduction was proportionate to the reduction in compensatory damages and was constitutional. With the reduction came instructions that Tom Douglas had 30 days to either accept the new amount of just over $48 million or submit to a new trial on damages only.
Three of the justices sided with the majority opinion while one justice concurred in part and dissented in part, and the other issued a strong dissent. Justice Benjamin agreed with the other outcomes, but stated that the verdict form’s inadequacy should have precluded the award of punitive damages. Justice Loughry argued that the “biases and whims of the majority” were on full display, that it went against precedent set by the United States Supreme Court regarding jury verdicts and usurped the discretion typically awarded to juries.
Even with the reduced amount, the jury award is certain to send a message that nursing homes cannot get away with poor treatment of their residents by hiding behind arbitration clauses or other so-called waivers of people’s rights.
The Wolfe Law Firm has been providing legal services for nearly 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm provides services in the areas of personal injury, criminal defense, bankruptcy, and mediation. If you are looking for an experienced West Virginia personal injury attorney, contact us today.