Families suing the operator of a Hartford nursing home where 16 patients died in a 2003 fire suffered a setback Monday, when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the home’s insurance coverage was $1 million instead of the $10 million claimed by the victims’ relatives.
The justices’ 3-2 decision reversed a lower court judge’s interpretation of Greenwood Health Center’s insurance policy in favor of the families. The high court instead found in favor of Boston-based Lexington Insurance Co., a subsidiary of American International Group Inc.
“It just seems completely inadequate,” Van Starkweather, an attorney for one victim’s family, said about the lower coverage figure. “I’m disappointed. It was a close decision. Three justices went with AIG. Two justices went with the victims.”
A lawyer for Lexington Insurance declined to comment Monday.
The fire at Greenwood Health Center on Feb. 26, 2003, broke out after psychiatric patient Leslie Andino set her bed on fire while flicking a cigarette lighter. Officials at the time said it was the 10th deadliest nursing home fire in U.S. history. Andino was charged with 16 counts of arson murder, but was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Relatives of 13 of the 16 victims sued the nursing home’s operator for cash damages, saying it failed to adequately supervise Andino. Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr. ruled in 2009 that Greenwood’s insurance policy with Lexington provided $250,000 in coverage for each plaintiff and the policy’s maximum coverage was $10 million.
But Lexington Insurance appealed Berger’s decision, saying that the $10 million was the total coverage for all seven nursing homes run by Greenwood’s operator and that each home was insured up to $1 million.
In a decision written by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, the Supreme Court’s majority found that each plaintiff actually was eligible for up to $500,000 from the insurance policy if they won their lawsuit, but that the policy’s total coverage was limited to $1 million.
Justices Richard N. Palmer and Peter T. Zarella joined Rogers in the majority. Justices Dennis G. Eveleigh and Flemming L. Norcott Jr. dissented.
Eveleigh wrote in the dissenting opinion that he found the insurance policy language on the $10 million limit to be ambiguous. Eveleigh said that under well-established legal precedent in Connecticut, ambiguous insurance policy language should be interpreted in favor of the insured and against the insurance company. He believes each nursing home was insured up to $10 million.
The Supreme Court’s ruling allows the families’ lawsuits to move forward with the $1 million insurance cap in place. If the 13 families win their lawsuits, they could split the $1 million and get more than $76,900 apiece, excluding attorney bills. They would have been eligible for up to $500,000 apiece, if the Supreme Court had ruled the nursing home’s maximum coverage was $10 million.
The families are suing Greenwood’s operator, Lexington Highgreen Holding Inc., and the company that leased the nursing home property, Lexington Healthcare Group Inc. The two companies are not related to Lexington Insurance.
Lexington Healthcare filed for bankruptcy protection within two months after the fire.
Victims’ families also sued the property owner, Nationwide Health Properties Inc. Starkweather said many families have settled those lawsuits under confidential terms.
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