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Lawsuits allege nursing home neglect

California Watch
Christina Jewett
January 10, 2011

In the months since a Humboldt County jury leveled a $671 million verdict against a nursing home chain, five similar lawsuits have been filed throughout California. Each case alleges that nursing homes are providing too few staff to meet resident needs.

Last July, the Humboldt County jury found Skilled Healthcare had failed to meet the state staffing standard and imposed the maximum fine of $500 per patient for each day that the chain was in violation. Attorneys for both sides have since agreed that the chain should pay $50 million to settle the claims and avert bankruptcy. The company admitted no wrongdoing.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs hailed the class-action case as one of the largest jury verdicts in nursing home litigation history.

Eureka Times Standard reporter Matt Drange wrote a detailed three-part series about the case, which you can read here. I also wrote about some of the "smoking gun" internal e-mails that jurors saw during the trial.

Several of the attorneys who prevailed in Humboldt County are bringing the new wave of complaints, which closely resemble the Skilled Healthcare lawsuit.

"We do think it's made a big wake-up call to the (nursing home) industry," said Michael Crowley, a Eureka attorney who worked on the Skilled Healthcare case. "If this is your model, to jack up profit by understaffing, that's just not going to be tolerated."

Kathryn Stebner, a San Francisco attorney who is working on the recently filed staffing cases, said attorneys relied on state data to identify nursing home chains and facilities that provided inadequate numbers of staff.

Here are some basics from the cases, all of which allege understaffing:

* Attorneys allege that plaintiff Phyllis Wehlage was left unattended when she was a resident at Evergreen Lakeport Healthcare in Lake County in 2008. As a result, her call light was unheeded and she had inadequate help with getting to the bathroom, "resulting in sitting in a urine-soaked bed for hours," the complaint says. (The case is Phyllis Wehlage v. Evergreen California Healthcare, filed Nov. 15 in Sonoma County)

  • George E. Valentine II, now 61, was a resident of Gateway Care and Rehabilitation in Hayward after suffering a brain injury after surgery. Attorneys allege that the facility had insufficient staffing. As a result, Valentine was not moved often enough to avoid developing bedsores. (The case is Valentine v. Thekkek Health Services, filed Nov. 12 in Alameda County.)
  • Two plaintiffs who lived in Golden LivingCenter facilities in Bakersfield and Petaluma allege that their nursing homes were understaffed, resulting in inadequate assistance with eating and rough handling by staff. (The case is Maria Hernandez v. Beverly Healthcare California, filed Nov. 10 in San Francisco.)
  • Hazel Walsh, a resident at Golden Gate Healthcare Center in San F
    rancisco, alleges that the facility's understaffing resulted in various forms of neglect. (The case is Hazel Walsh vs. Kindred Healthcare, filed Nov. 23, 2010 in San Francisco.)

Attorneys in Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland filed a fifth case against Orange County-based Covenant Care, saying it provided inadequate staffing to residents.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, understaffing at Emerald Gardens Nursing Center in Sacramento resulted in one resident being drugged until he was sleepy and groggy. Staff also failed to move resident Morris Perry for so long that he developed a bedsore requiring "three surgeries to date," the lawsuit says.

The Covenent case, which was filed in April, has had the most time to advance in court, compared to the other cases, which were filed in November. Attorneys for Covenant Care filed a response to the lawsuit saying it denies "each, every and all of the allegations." The response also denies that Morris suffered any injury or loss as a result of Covenant Care's acts or omissions.

Covenant Care is arguing to void some aspects of the case since Perry died in September, after the suit was filed. The company also questions the validity of Perry's representative, his son, records show.

California Watch highlighted Covenant Care in an article focusing on facilities that reaped increased payment from the state, yet saw declining staff levels. The chain's chief executive did not respond to requests for comment at the time.

Mark Reagan, an attorney who represents the California Association of Health Facilities, said he does not expect any of the complaints to result in the same kind of massive jury award seen in Humboldt County.

"We think the outcome in Eureka was an aberrant outcome," Reagan said.

Reagan filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Skilled Healthcare in the Humboldt case. He disagrees with several of the basic components of the strategy that won the case.

He disputes whether the law cited in the case guarantees nursing home residents a right to a specific staffing standard. And he noted that an influential court decision suggests that it's the job of the state Department of Public Health - not the courts - to enforce the state nursing home staffing standard. Reagan said he also questions whether its appropriate to file the understaffing cases as class-action lawsuits.

Crowley, the plaintiffs' attorney, said the Humboldt County jury faced a unique set of circumstances. Whether other juries will reach the same conclusions, "one can always hope," he said.