Suffering from dementia and confined to a wheelchair, 94 year-old Florida nursing home resident Elvira Nunziata needed near-constant supervision. Still, she managed to pass through a door that should have been locked, falling down a stairwell and sustaining fatal injuries in 2004. Her son, Richard Nunziata, knew someone at the nursing home had made a fatal mistake.
Nunziata filed suit against the nursing home for wrongful death, claiming that negligent supervision by staff led directly to his mother’s death. We reported last month in this Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog that a jury awarded him $200 million in damages. There was one major problem with the verdict, however: no one showed up to defend the suit at trial. This case demonstrates how the law holding nursing homes liable for injuries has not caught up with the way nursing homes are owned and managed.
For-profit nursing homes, which have surged in the past decade or so according to the Tampa Bay Times, often split ownership of a nursing home among several different business entities. Each company would own different parts of the nursing home operation or handle responsibility, and liability, for different parts of the business. One company might own the building housing the nursing home, while another company owns the equipment and yet another handles payroll and personnel. If one part of a nursing home operation runs into legal trouble, a parent company can dissolve that business entity and create a new one. This process has little to no transparency. In this environment, it can be exceedingly difficult for someone seeking to make a claim for an injury to even identify which business is liable. It is even difficult for state and federal regulators to determine where to put liability for regulatory infractions.
In Nunziata’s case, Pinellas Park Care and Rehab Center, the home where his mother last lived, was owned by one company and operated by another. Trans Health Management, Inc., the home’s operator, reportedly had its corporate status revoked by the state of Florida by the time Nunziata sued in 2005. A forensic accountant testified at trial that Trans Health’s business was sold in 2006. Three separate companies each bought or “inherited” Trans Health’s operations, management contracts, and liabilities. The company that ended up with its liabilities, Fundamental Long Term Care Inc., also lost its corporate status and no longer exists. The accountant testified that most of these companies existed for the sole purpose of shuffling Trans Health’s assets and liabilities around. Nunziata’s best bet, for which there may be some precedent, is to go after the private equity companies that put all these businesses together in the first place.