Articles Posted in Relevant Nursing Home Case Law

Earlier this month, an appellate court in California issued a written opinion in a personal injury case presenting an interesting issue that often arises in Maryland nursing home abuse and neglect cases. The case required the court to determine if an arbitration agreement was valid when it was signed by a resident’s family member who possessed a valid power of attorney at the time the document was executed. Ultimately, the court concluded that the decision of whether to admit someone to a nursing home constitutes a “health care decision,” which was not a right conferred by the power of attorney document.

Signing a ContractThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was the surviving loved one of a woman who died shortly after leaving the care of the defendant nursing home. Prior to the resident’s admission, the resident had executed two relevant documents. The first, executed in 2006, was a health-care power of attorney executed in favor of the plaintiff. The second, executed in 2010, was a personal-care power of attorney executed in favor of the plaintiff as well as the resident’s sister.

After the second document was executed, the resident’s sister placed the resident in the defendant nursing home. Prior to admitting the resident, the resident’s sister executed a pre-admission contract that contained an arbitration clause whereby both parties agreed to submit any claim that arose between the two to binding arbitration rather than the court system.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a wrongful death case involving allegations that a nursing home failed to properly care for a resident. The focus of the court’s analysis was on the issue of an arbitration clause that was contained in a pre-admission contract signed by one of the resident’s daughters on the resident’s behalf. Ultimately, the court held that the arbitration clause should be enforced, resulting in the plaintiff being required to resolve the case through binding arbitration.

GavelThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was the daughter of a nursing home resident who died while in the care of the defendant nursing home. Before her death, the resident had fallen six times while a resident of the nursing home. Prior to the resident’s admission into the nursing home, one of the resident’s other daughters executed a pre-admission contract on her mother’s behalf. The contract stated that the parties agreed to submit any case arising out of the resident’s stay at the home to an arbitration panel, rather than resolving the case through the court system. Maryland nursing home residents often sign similar agreements.

At the time the contract was signed by the resident’s daughter, the daughter had power of attorney over her mother’s affairs. Specifically, the power of attorney document gave the daughter control over “all lawful health care decisions” of her mother.

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When someone is seeking admission into a Maryland nursing home, they will almost certainly be presented with a pre-admission contract. This contract goes over the rights and responsibilities of both the nursing home as well as the soon-to-be resident. In most nursing home pre-admission contracts, there is also an arbitration clause agreeing to forego the court system in lieu of arbitration in the event of a disagreement or lawsuit.

Signing a ContractArbitration clauses are generally enforced if they are entered into by the proper parties and are found to be within the constraints of the law. For example, some arbitration clauses have been invalidated because they are “buried” in the fine print of a lengthy contract with nothing indicating the significance of the rights the reader is giving up by signing the document.

Like all contracts, arbitration agreements must be validly entered into in order to be binding. This means that if a resident is found to have been incompetent, or is determined to have been forced to sign an agreement, the contract will not be enforced. A recent news article discusses a Kentucky case in which the court invalidated a nursing home arbitration contract because it was signed by the resident’s sister without the proper power of attorney.

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In most cases alleging Maryland nursing home abuse or neglect, if successful, the plaintiff will receive compensation for the injuries sustained by their loved one. This normally includes the costs of medical expenses, and it may also include an amount for the emotional pain and suffering their loved one endured as a result of the abuse or neglect. In some rare cases, punitive damages may also be appropriate.

CourtroomMost of the various types of damages available to a plaintiff in a Maryland personal injury case are focused on the plaintiff. However, the focus of punitive damages is on the especially egregious behavior of the defendant. Indeed, the purpose of punitive damages is to deter the very kind of behavior the defendant exhibited that led to the case being filed.

Punitive damages in Maryland are rare and require a showing of actual malice. This means that a plaintiff must show that the defendant possessed some kind of ill-will or spite. Thus, punitive damages are usually only appropriate when the defendant is found to have engaged in intentional wrongdoing, rather than merely negligent conduct. A recent case is an example of a situation in which punitive damages were found to be appropriate by a court.

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When a Maryland nursing home neglect lawsuit is filed, the case will proceed through several stages before it is ready to be heard. One of the most important pre-trial stages is the discovery stage, at which the parties request and exchange relevant information about the case.

ContractThe discovery stage presents an important opportunity for a plaintiff to develop their case, since this is often when the plaintiff receives information to which they may not otherwise have access. In most cases, a plaintiff will request any and all evidence that they believe is in the defendant’s control that will be potentially helpful to their case. Similarly, a plaintiff can request any evidence that may be harmful to their case so that they can be properly prepared to handle this evidence when it is presented.

In some cases, defendants may attempt to limit a plaintiff’s access to discoverable material by claiming that the evidence is covered under some privilege. In such situations, the parties will litigate pre-trial discovery motions in front of the court, which will have the ultimate decision regarding which evidence must be exchanged. A recent case involving wrongful death claims against a nursing home illustrates how a defendant nursing home may cite a privilege in an attempt to prevent a plaintiff’s access to certain evidence.

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One issue that often arises in Maryland nursing home cases is the effect of an arbitration agreement on a resident’s claim. In a recent case, one state’s appeals court considered whether an arbitration agreement was enforceable even though the resident passed away before the rescission period had passed.

ContractIn that case, an elderly woman had been a nursing home resident in a 24-hour nursing facility. After her death, the woman’s family filed a lawsuit against the nursing home facility, claiming elder abuse, negligence, wrongful death, and violations of the Patient’s Bill of Rights under state law. The nursing home argued that the case had to be resolved through arbitration because the resident had executed two arbitration agreements with the facility.

The arbitration agreements had language that was required by the state, which mandated that there be a 30-day “cooling off” period. During the cooling off period, either the nursing home or the resident could decide to rescind the agreement. The resident died 10 days after the woman signed the agreements, before the 30-day period had passed. The woman’s family argued that the agreements were not valid because the woman died before the expiration of the 30-day rescission period had ended.

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One of the most significant hurdles Maryland nursing home abuse and neglect cases face early in the process is overcoming a defense motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment is a mechanism by which either party – although very often the defense in personal injury cases – asks the court to resolve the case because the other party cannot legally win the case based on the evidence presented.

StethoscopeA nursing home abuse or neglect plaintiff can overcome a defense motion for summary judgment by showing that there is some issue of material fact that should be resolved by a jury. However, if no issues of fact are present – and the only issues are legal in nature – the court will enter summary judgment in favor of the moving party. A recent case illustrates how one trial court applied the summary judgment standard incorrectly.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs were the surviving family members of an elderly woman who died while in the care of the defendant nursing home. The resident was admitted to the nursing home in March 2012 after being discharged from the hospital. Upon admission, the resident suffered from severe pulmonary and kidney conditions. Initially, the resident showed signs of improvement; however, about two months after her admission, the resident’s health began to decline due to a septic infection. The resident died from complications relating to the infection a short time later.

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Over the past few months, there have been a number of nursing home abuse and neglect cases involving nursing home employees or management attempting to cover up the allegations made against them. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has turned out to be a successful tactic to evade liability, albeit through illegal and immoral means.

Folders of PaperAs a general rule, parties must preserve all of the evidence, including physical documents, emails, and even text messages, that may be relevant to a case as soon as that party has notice that a case was filed. This is because the opposing party is entitled to review all of the relevant documents through the process of pre-trial discovery.

Pre-Trial Discovery in Nursing Home Cases

In nursing home abuse and neglect cases in particular, pre-trial discovery is an integral process for the plaintiff. This is because there is likely little way for the plaintiff to have any knowledge of what goes on inside the walls of the nursing home, especially when the plaintiff’s loved one suffers from dementia or some other illness that affects their memory or ability to communicate.

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Last month, an appellate court in Georgia issued a written opinion in a case brought against a hospital involving allegations that the hospital was negligent in allowing the plaintiff to develop a stage IV bed sore. Ultimately, however, the court rejected the plaintiff’s case because the required expert affidavit that was filed along with the case failed to comply with state-law requirements.

Hospital RoomThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was admitted to the defendant hospital while he was unconscious. While he was being treated by the hospital, he developed a stage IV pressure ulcer near the base of his back. The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the hospital, claiming that the hospital staff was negligent in failing to assess and treat the pressure ulcer and to properly care for him while he was unconscious.

As is the case in Maryland, under Georgia state law, medical malpractice plaintiffs must submit an affidavit in support of their claim. Essentially, the affidavit must come from a medical profession in a relevant field, and it must “set forth specifically at least one negligent act or omission claimed to exist and the factual basis for each such claim.”

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Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a written opinion in a case brought by the surviving family members of two nursing home residents who died while in the care of the defendant nursing home. The case required the court to determine whether a state law was valid if it permitted a loved one of a nursing home resident to enter into binding arbitration only when they possess a power of attorney document that specifically mentions “access to the courts” as a conferred right. Ultimately, the court determined that the state law violated the Federal Arbitration Act.

Signing a ContractThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs were the surviving family members of two loved ones who lived in the defendant nursing home prior to their deaths. Prior to the residents’ admission to the facility, the plaintiffs completed the necessary pre-admission paperwork for each of the residents. One clause in the document stated that “[a]ny and all claims or controversies arising out of or in any way relating to . . . the Resident’s stay at the Facility” would be resolved through binding arbitration. At the time the paperwork was completed, the plaintiffs had valid documents indicating that they possessed powers of attorney for their loved ones that permitted they “dispose of all matters” related to their loved ones.

In the next year, both residents died while in the care of the nursing home. The nursing home asked the court to dismiss the case and require the plaintiffs to submit their cases through the arbitration process, as indicated in the pre-admission contracts. The state court rejected the nursing home’s argument, finding that a person’s access to the court system is a “sacred” right, and it can only be waived by an explicit statement in the power of attorney document.

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