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Jury finds Auburn nursing home committed elder abuse in death

Sacramento Bee
Cynthia Hubert (
May 13, 2010

A Sacramento Superior Court jury has leveled $28 million in punitive damages against a Rocklin-based nursing home corporation in the death of a Northern California woman in 2005.

The jury on Wednesday found Colonial Healthcare of Auburn and its parent company, Horizon West of Rocklin, guilty of elder abuse in the death of Frances Tanner, 79, a Stockton native and lifelong civil servant. They heard testimony about the corporation's finances today before deciding punitive damages.

Sacramento lawyer Ed Dudensing, who represented Tanner's daughter Elizabeth Pao in the case, urged jurors to make sure that Horizon paid dearly for the lapses that he argued led to Tanner's death.

"The people spoke today," said advocate Carole Herman of Foundation Aiding the Elderly, who was in the courtroom today. "They wanted to make sure that this company never again puts profits before patient care."

On Wednesday, the jury awarded $1.1 million in damages for Tanner's pain and suffering and for her Pao's loss of companionship. They also decided that the home's conduct was "malicious, oppressive or fraudulent," meaning that they can award punitive damages as well.

The verdict was the third of its kind in Sacramento County history, said advocate Carole Herman of Foundation Aiding the Elderly. Such cases usually are settled outside of court, and the burden of proof is high, said Dudensing.

"This was a monumental verdict," Herman said. "I hope that it sends a message to Colonial and to other nursing homes that they need to do better."

Tanner was spirited and mobile but suffering from mild dementia, when she moved into the home in March 2005, Pao said. Seven months later, after a fall that resulted in a broken hip, she was dead from an infected bedsore.

During testimony before Judge Roland Candee, jurors heard accusations of chronic understaffing, poor medical documentation and corporate greed. One former Colonial staffer said he would not place a relative at the home.

Dudensing argued that Colonial and Horizon put profits before good patient care.

Colonial and Horizon, which owns 33 nursing homes mostly in Northern California, vigorously disputed the charges. Their attorneys said Colonial took good care of Tanner, and that the home was not responsible for the pressure sore that ultimately killed her.

Colonial has a history of problems with state regulators. The Tanner case was the fourth in recent years in which the home was cited in the death of an elderly patient.

"This is an organization that we have a lot of concerns about," said Dudensing. "It's a corporate culture that starts at the top, and trickles all the way down to the charge nurses and other employees."

Colonial's attorney, Kim Wells, said during the trial that Tanner had a devoted "one-on-one" caregiver for most of her stay, and that she never was neglected.

Pao, Tanner's daughter, said she was relieved by the verdict.

"It is some justice for my mom, who was the type of lady who wanted to take care of everyone," she said. "Now, I think she can really rest."