Nursing home verdict is far from largest

Nursing home verdict is far from largest

Kevin Blocker Staff writer

The $4.8 million verdict against Alderwood Manor in Spokane is far from the largest award involving an American nursing home.

From 1997 to 2001, some of the largest jury verdicts against nursing homes occurred. In Texas, awards of $312 million and $82 million were made, according to The National Law Journal.

The nursing home industry blames the high awards on greedy plaintiffs’ lawyers who are targeting a vulnerable industry, and on residents who may already be in severely declining health.

But lawyers say nursing homes, particularly those owned by large for-profit corporations, are deliberately operating at low staff levels to maximize profits.

Attorney Mark Kamitomo represented Wafford Conrad, whose wife, Enid Conrad, died after leaving Alderwood Manor.

In his closing arguments, he asked jurors not to look at Enid Conrad’s age, but make a decision based on the quality of treatment she received at the nursing home.

Kamitomo said he never asked the jury for a specific amount of money.

“To myself, I went into this expecting an award of $500,000 – maybe $1 million if the jury felt really incensed by what happened – but this (award), this I never expected.”

Attorneys around the country acknowledge they have developed improved strategies of evaluating, building and trying lawsuits against nursing homes.

The first step in developing such a case is similar to the procedure for any personal injury case, said David T. Marks of The Marks Firm in Houston, which won an $82 million verdict against a Texas nursing home in 1997. In that case, a Texas woman died from infected pressure sores and dehydration, court papers say.

“Look at the injuries,” said H. Dustin Fillmore III of Fillmore Law firm in Fort Worth, Texas, which won a $312 million verdict last year.

“If there are pressure sores, malnutrition, dehydration, it shows the patient isn’t being turned over in bed, is not being fed, has not been given water,” he said.

Fillmore’s firm represented the family of an elderly woman who was malnourished and had 16 severe bedsores when she died.

Unlike medical malpractice, in which the claim is generally based on one event, attorneys in nursing home litigation have to find a pattern of neglect.

Bruce Rosenthal, director of media relations for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging in New York, said high jury verdicts are having negative effects on the nursing home industry.

Rosenthal said it is becoming tougher for nursing homes to obtain insurance.

“We have discovered in recent years that many of our members are operating without insurance,” Rosenthal said. “What the industry is calling for is meaningful tort reform to take place at the federal level.”

Nursing home officials would like to see caps placed on the amount of money juries can impose on nursing homes, Rosenthal said.

“Nursing homes need to be able to concentrate on providing quality care for older people and not be worried about lawsuits,” Rosenthal said.

Thursday’s $4.8 million verdict is not the largest Kamitomo has won at trial.

In April 1999, Kamitomo and Idaho attorney Rex Blackburn won a $14 million award when a Texas jury ruled negligence against Riddell Inc., the nation’s largest maker of football helmets.

Kamitomo and Blackburn convinced jurors Riddell put inadequate padding in a helmet worn by a high school athlete who suffered a brain injury during a scrimmage.

In the summer of 1998, Kamitomo won a $5.3 million award against Sacred Heart Medical Center – a record-setting malpractice verdict for Spokane County.

He represented a woman who became a quadriplegic because a doctor took too long to operate on her spine.

Copyright 2002 Cowles Publishing Company

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