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Punitive Damages for Institutional Elder Abuse

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities can be beneficial for our elderly population as they continue into their later years.  However, it comes as no surprise to many that patients are the subject of serious negligence and even abuse at times.  Many patients require round-the-clock care, and if this care is not adequately provided to patients, those patients are at risk of suffering serious harm or even death, as the case was with Joan Boice, a resident of an assisted living facility in Sacramento.  The facility, owned by Emeritus Corporation, a widely known large company, committed egregious acts that led to the untimely death of Ms. Boice.

Ms. Boice entered the assisted living facility with the understanding that she would receive the necessary care for her to continue living for an expected 3-5 years.  However, Ms. Boice quickly learned that the assisted living facility had something else in mind – money.  The facility took numerous actions that put money ahead of patient health and safety.  Such shortcuts used to maximize profit include but are not limited to, failing to train staff adequately, failing to attend to the medical needs of patients, intentionally having an understaffed workforce, and making the decision to keep paying residents in the facility at all costs – even someone’s life.

Ms. Boice’s Pressure Sores Required Immediate Medical Intervention

Ms. Boice’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Emeritus Corporation after Ms. Boice died five months after she moved into the assisted living facility.  Ms. Boice suffered from pressure ulcers, also known as bed sores, and did not receive the medically necessary treatment for these sores.  The assisted living facility effectively refused to transfer Ms. Boice to a hospital or other medical facility so that her pressure ulcers could be treated.  Because of the assisted living facilities decision to not transfer Ms. Boice, she died.  If Ms. Boice were transferred, the assisted living facility would no longer receive rent payments from Ms. Boice.  This decision to consider a very small percentage of its profit over Ms. Boice’s health is egregious and willful conduct that warrants punitive damages in elder abuse cases.

At the conclusion of Ms. Boice’s wrongful death lawsuit, the jury felt the assisted living facility was responsible for Ms. Boice’s death and that Emeritus Corporation’s policy of putting profit over the health and safety of patients was conduct that was punishable in nature – conduct that warranted a finding of punitive damages.  The jury awarded Ms. Boice just under $4 million in pain and suffering and multi-millions in punitive damages, sending a message to Emeritus Corporation and other similar institutions.

Why Punitive Damages Should be Awarded in Elder Abuse and Neglect Cases

Ms. Boice’s story is just one example of how nursing homes and assisted living facilities take measures to ensure profit is always the most important goal of running a healthcare facility for elderly individuals.  A variety of actions can be grounds for awarding punitive damages, including the following:

  • Inadequate training – It is crucial that all staff-members have the proper and necessary training to ensure each and every patient’s medical needs are being met.  In Ms. Boice’s case, the assisted living facility had a duty to ensure the pressure ulcers/bed sores were promptly evaluated by a qualified medical professional.
  • Understaffing – If a facility has fewer staff members, that’s less money that the facility has to pay to employees.  This decrease in overhead makes a big difference as understaffing will undoubtedly result in patients being ignored and untreated.  Emeritus Corporation intentionally understaffed, further demonstrating the wrongful and deceitful conduct that led to Ms. Boice’s death.
  • Admitting too many residents – In addition to intentional understaffing, if a facility intentionally admits too many residents, there will be more money coming in, and less available care to these patients.  As such, combining understaffing with over-admitting is a dangerous cocktail that puts patients’ lives at risk.
  • Refusing to transfer patients when medically necessary: Preventing a patient from being transferred to another facility for necessary medical treatment is most certainly punishable conduct, to the point that it is almost criminal in nature.  Emeritus Corporation wanted Ms. Boice to keep paying her rent until the day she died instead of allowing her to receive necessary medical treatment at another facility and continue to live.

Punitive damages are a way to deter future like conduct, meaning that if a company like Emeritus Corporation is punished by an award of punitive damages, the hope is that this company will not continue the same practices of “institutional” elder abuse and neglect.  However, it is unfortunate that some companies will continue to behave the same way so long as they are making money.  As such, the greater the punitive damages award, the stronger the message will be to Emeritus Corporation.  Judges in California are keen on upholding the maximum possible constitutional award of punitive damages as a way to stop the mistreatment of elders in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Stockton Personal Injury Lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Stockton Personal Injury Lawyer(916) 921-6400.  If you or a family member has been seriously hurt in any accident or the victim of elder abuse, please call me today at (209) 227-1931 or (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice.

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