ASSOCIATED PRESS reported that a jury in Sacramento County awarded $29.1 million in the wrongful death case brought by the heirs of Frances Tanner, 79 of Stockton. The juries award included $28 million in punitive damages and $1.1 million in compensatory damages against Colonial Healthcare and its partner, Horizon West Healthcare Inc., for Tanner’s death resulting from elder abuse in 2005. Tanner’s daughter, Elizabeth Pao and her estate, who were represented by attorney Ed Dudensing, who was quoted as saying “the jury made the award they did because they rejected the way Horizon West did business.” Tanner’s daughter, claimed her mother was experiencing dementia when she moved into the nursing home and then broke her hip in a fall and subsequently died from infected bedsore. Pao’s attorney presented evidence of substandard conditions such as chronic understaffing, poor medical documentation, and other acts involving neglect. In addition, evidence of the companies’ finances and business practices were key to the punitive damage award.
Our condolences go out to Mrs. Tanner’s family and friends.
Applicable California Law
Tanners heirs prevailed on their claim for her wrongful death (see my prior Blog post for California’s wrongful death law). California Civil Code Section 3294 details the criteria as to when punitive damages can be awarded. As it relates to employers, punitive damages based on the conduct of an employee, may be awarded in special circumstances and when there is proof that the employer :
- Had advanced knowledge that the employee was unfit an employed him or her with conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others
- Authorizes or ratifies the bad conduct; or
- Commits one or more acts of oppression; or
- Commits fraud, such as a “cover up” or lying about events;
- Engages in one or more malicious acts
In cases involving corporate employers the allegation of “conscious disregard ” must be the act of “an officer, director, or managing agent” of the corporation having the power to influence corporate policy. Punitive damages are awarded in limited cases and are designed to punish the wrongdoers and act as a deterrent.
Cases involving Nursing Home Negligence, which result in serious injury or wrongful death are increasing. Large corporations that own and, in some cases, operate them are often more interested on profits than providing services, which increases the danger to residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Other aggravating factors such as insurance companies reducing benefits and reimbursement for services, results in the hiring of poorly screened, under qualified employees, and under staffed facilities. It is critical that family and friends are vigilant in monitoring nursing home residents. If a loved one or some one you know, shows any signs of neglect or abuse while living at a nursing home, contact a experienced personal injury attorney.