Dangerous Nursing Homes Evade Legal Responsibility
The recent struggles of a family to collect a $200-million verdict against a Florida nursing home highlight the difficulty that plaintiffs frequently face in getting the money that a jury has ruled is theirs.
Elvira Nunziata, a 92-year-old resident of Pinelas Park Care and Rehab Center, died in 2004 after falling down a stairwell to her death. Her family sued the company that operated the home for negligence because a door was wrongfully left open while employees went for a smoke break.
A jury returned its verdict against the defendant in January; but as the Tampa Bay Tribune reported on Feb. 4, “Now the real battle has begun.” According to the Tribune, the ownership of the home was a complex maze of multiple companies, making it difficult to determine who’s making money and who’s responsible for what.
The company that operated the home at the time of the accident no longer existed, another company had inherited the nursing home’s income streams, and a third company had inherited its liabilities. In fact, the defendant left so few traces of its true existence that no lawyer was even sent to try the case.
Chicago plaintiff’s attorney Steven M. Levin, whose practice focuses largely on nursing home litigation, says that the difficulty the plaintiffs are facing in the Nunziata case is nothing new. Nursing-home owners have deliberately created complex structures to make it difficult for plaintiffs to collect judgments, he says.
But there are ways to get them to pay up, he says.
“What we do in that situation is try to follow the money,” he says. “In other words, we try to determine who really owns the home and who is receiving money for operating the home, and we try to come up with theories to show that these individuals are potentially personally responsible for what happened.”
For example, he said, if the president of a corporation that owns the home can be shown to have made decisions that made it difficult for the home to provide acceptable care, he may be personally liable. In that instance, he said, “we would attempt to develop a theory to hold you personally responsible and not allow you to hide behind some sort of legal entity.”
In addition, Levin says, some nursing homes purposefully operate their facilities with insufficient insurance coverage “because [the owners] feel it would be difficult to hold them individually responsible.”
“So we’ve developed a number of theories to try to hold them individually responsible, including suing owners directly as well as suing employees of the home who may have committed actual wrongful acts, as opposed to just suing the legal entity that is the licensee.”
Levin contends that as Baby Boomer retirees start to enter nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities, the situation will only get worse.
“In my opinion, what’s happening is that now the owners’ desire to make a profit apparently conflicts with having the appropriate staff and resources to adequately care for the residents,” he says.
Making things worse, he says, is a general cultural bias against older people and a lack of resistance to efforts to drain resources away from the older population.
“There are more and more people going into the whole long-term-care spectrum,” he says. “There are a lot of these cases now and there are going to continue to be more.”
If you have concerns about how you or a loved one are being treated in a long-term care facility, an experienced attorney can help you sort out your options.