West Virginia High Court Reduces Nursing Home’s $91M Damages

By Jonathan Matisse and John Raby | June 20, 2014

The West Virginia Supreme Court has slashed by more than half the multimillion-dollar damages a jury levied against a Charleston nursing home in connection with a former resident’s death.

In a 76-page divided opinion released, the justices reduced the penalty against Heartland of Charleston from $91 million to $37 million.

After a nearly two-week trial in 2011, a Kanawha County jury found that Heartland of Charleston failed to feed and care for Dorothy Douglas. She stayed at the home for about three weeks while awaiting space to open up at another facility. The 87-year-old woman died 18 days after her release from Heartland in 2009.

Attorneys for the nursing home had called the $91 million award excessive and unfair. They said the claims against the nursing home and its employees should have been subject to the state’s $500,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Ben Bailey, an attorney representing the nursing home’s corporate owner, said the company appreciates the relief and is still reviewing the ruling.

Douglas’ son, Tom Douglas, sued parent company Manor Care Inc. and related companies, alleging negligent treatment. The ruling gives Tom Douglas 30 days to agree to the new award, or request a new trial to change only the $32 million in punitive damages.

Attorneys for the Douglas family didn’t immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment on the verdict.

The court reduced a jury’s $11.5 million award in compensatory damages to $4.6 million, saying the lower court erred in its ruling on certain issues, and reduced punitive damages from $80 million to $32 million.

The Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages based on a 7-to-1 ratio of punitive-to-compensatory damages reflecting the reduced compensatory amount.

Bailey had argued that the $91 million award would seriously harm Heartland of Charleston and other ManorCare nursing homes in West Virginia. He said in 2012 that Heartland has an income of about $250,000 annually.

Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib Jr. last year denied a defense motion for a new trial. He ruled the verdict appropriately punished Heartland of Charleston’s corporate owner, HCR Manor Care, for a history of intentionally short-staffing nursing homes to maximize profit.

The verdict was reduced from $91.5 million to $90.5 million soon after the 2011 trial after Zakaib ruled a small portion of the damage award fell under the $500,000 medical malpractice cap.

Justice Allen Loughry dissented, saying he would have reversed the circuit court decision and demanded a new trial.

Justice Brent Benjamin concurred with much of the decision but also dissented on the awarding of punitive damages. Justice Menis Ketchum disqualified himself.

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