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$91.5 million verdict awarded for nursing home death

A West Virginia jury has awarded the son of a woman who died of severe dehydration after a brief stay in a nursing home $91.5 million, including an $80 million punitive damages award.

“It was like a house of horrors,” plaintiffs’ attorney Michael J. Fuller said of the facility where 87-year-old Dorothy Douglas was admitted in 2009, only to die a few weeks later.

‘Unresponsive and bed-bound’

According to the complaint, in 2009 the plaintiff, Dorothy’s son Tom Douglas, sought to place his mother in a nursing home facility after her Parkinson’s disease and dementia advanced to the point where he could no longer care for her in his home.

While waiting for a spot in the nursing home he selected for her to open, she was temporarily placed in Heartland of Charleston, a ManorCare facility. According to Tom Douglas’ testimony, at the time she was admitted she could speak and had some limited mobility.

But after only a few weeks at the facility, things changed dramatically.

“Within 20 days, they took a woman who was able to communicate her needs, feed herself, and ambulate with the assistance of a walker and turned her into someone who was unresponsive and bed-bound,” Fuller said.

After Dorothy Douglas was transferred to the other facility, the staff saw her condition, called 911 and then called her son.

“She was severely dehydrated,” Fuller said. “One of the nurses from the subsequent nursing home testified that she had black, necrotic crud in her mouth.”

Soon after, she died.

Her son and daughterbrought a wrongful death action against ManorCare, claiming the facility negligently failed to ensure their mother received proper hydration and basic care.

According to Fuller, the defense countered that Dorothy Douglas died as a result of her illnesses, not the care she received at the nursing home.

Verdict returned in two hours

Before trial, the parties went through mediation, during which Fuller said settlement offers were made by the defendant.

But Tom Douglas was not interested in accepting a settlement.

“For him it wasn’t about the money,” Fuller said. “He wanted to bring it to the attention of others in the community that this kind of conduct wasn’t acceptable. They couldn’t throw a little money at him and get away with it.”

At trial, the most important piece of evidence was the testimony of the victim’s son, Fuller said. Douglas, who had cared for his mother in his home with the assistance of others for years, testified about her condition before she entered the facility.

“I think one of the most valuable things in [helping the jury] understand any nursing home case is the client,” Fuller said. “Tom was a very involved client. His testimony was critical.”

Although both sides presented experts to give opinions on the cause of death, the testimony of Dorothy Douglas’ treating physicians was crucial in persuading the jury that dehydration was the cause of her death, not her underlying illnesses, Fuller said.

“Her treating physician said that he expected her to live for at least a couple more years” based on her condition before entering the facility, Fuller said. “Instead, she was dead in a month and a half.”

After a two-week trial, it took the jury only two hours to return a verdict in the Douglas family’s favor, awarding $1 million for civil rights violations, $5 million for wrongful death, $5 million for breach of fiduciary duty and $80 million in punitive damages.

Trial defense attorney Charles F. Johns, a partner in the Charleston, W.Va. office of Steptoe & Johnson, directed a request for comment to HCR ManorCare. In response, spokeswoman Julie Beckert said in a statement that the company believes “the center and staff acted appropriately in providing the proper care for this resident.”

“Heartland continually reviews the quality of care provided to our residents,” Beckert’s statement said. “In addition, we believe this center was staffed above the state requirements at the time in question.”

The company said it would appeal, but did not specify the grounds.

Post-trial motions have been filed to determine if part of the verdict is subject to state law damage caps for professional negligence claims. Douglas’ attorneys contend that failure to provide sufficient hydration to his mother constituted ordinary negligence that would not be subject to the cap.

Plaintiff’s attorneys: Michael J. Fuller, Amy J. Quezon, Lance Reins and D. Bryant Chaffin of the McHugh Fuller Law Group in Hattiesburg, Miss. and Charleston, W.Va.
Defense attorney: Charles F. Johns of Steptoe & Johnson in Charleston, W.Va.
The case: Douglas v. Manor Care; Aug. 5, 2011; Circuit Court of Kanawha County, W.Va.; Judge Paul Zakaib Jr.

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: kimberly.atkins@lawyersusaonline.com