NURSING HOMES: Lawsuits Against Industry Increase
A $95.1 million award handed down this week against Fort Smith, AR-based Beverly Enterprises Inc., the nation's largest nursing home company, "appears to reflect juries' increasing fury over alleged abuse of the elderly," the Wall Street Journal reports. Average compensatory awards in nursing home cases have increased "fourfold in the past three years, to $1.3 million," and punitive-damage awards are also getting larger. "Nursing home litigation is where medical-malpractice and product-liability litigation was 30 years ago," said Chicago attorney Steven Levin, co-chair of the American Trial Lawyers Association's nursing-home litigation group. "There's been no real successful governmental enforcement. The whole industry is operating below acceptable levels of care," he said.
The American Health Care Association denies that enforcement is lax in the industry, but the group concedes that legal battles are creating a problem for nursing homes. "Certainly there are attorneys out there who have targeted nursing homes," said Thomas Burke, a spokesperson for the group. "The margins for nursing facilities are quite small to begin with, and to put on a legal squeeze could only exacerbate a difficult situation at best," he said. The Journal reports that the number of cases "poses a serious litigation threat to an industry that has been the subject of heavy merger activity during the past few years." Lawyers are now using whistleblowers to "find document trails that turn simple negligence allegations into cases charging systematic corporate misbehavior and fraud." And the Journal reports that some states "are encouraging attorneys to file more nursing home suits." For example, California's "elder- abuse statute was amended in 1991 to allow litigation to survive a resident's death and to provide for legal fees when reckless conduct is shown" (Moss, 3/6).