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Jury Awards $1 Billion in Punitive Damages in Nursing Home Case

In a case that was resolved through a highly unusual process, a jury in Florida has awarded the estate of a 69-year-old woman $110 million in damages and a staggering $1 billion in punitive damages in response to allegations that the nursing home she lived in failed to supervise her adequately enough to prevent her from repeatedly falling and injuring herself.

Nursing home falls are especially dangerous because those who live in skilled nursing care facilities are naturally sicker, and often older, than the general population. While slip-and-fall accidents can be serious at any age, in nursing homes the result is far more likely to be broken bones or a head injury. For that reason, facilities that care for elderly and disabled patients are required to take active steps to prevent patient falls, such as ensuring that patients use bed rails and providing them with appropriate supportive devices for walking. Also, the facilities are often full of hazards such as electrical cords and slippery floors, all of which need to be addressed.

The primary cause of nursing home falls, however, is poorly trained or inadequate staff. Facility staff must be able to properly supervise residents and to respond when falls occur. Sadly, this is not always the case.

An unusual aspect of the case in Florida is that the defendants, two nursing home management companies, dropped out, possibly because each had argued that it operated the facility where the woman died and the issue was never resolved. However, in cases where defendants refuse to participate in lawsuits against them, courts can enter what is called a default judgment against them, and that means the plaintiff is no longer required to prove the defendant was negligent. Instead, the only remaining issue in the case is the amount in damages the defendant will be required to pay.

A default judgment was issued against the two management firms in 2011, and the judge refused the companies’ later requests to set it aside. Finally, the case came before the jury. In just over an hour, that jury decided that the woman’s estate was owed $110 million in compensation for her suffering and losses. They also determined that the nursing home needed to be punished for its repeated negligence, so it awarded $1 billion in punitive damages.

While it’s unclear how or when the plaintiff will be able to collect those damages, he is grateful for the jury’s sympathy. “He is grateful that the jury saw the value of his mother’s life,” said his attorney. “To him, she was a treasure. The jury valued her the same way.”

Source: The Ledger, “Polk Jury Awards $1.1 Billion Verdict in Nursing Home Negligence Case,” Jason Geary, July 22, 2013