Jury Awards $200 Million in Nursing Home Wrongful Death Case Where Defense Did Not Show Up

A jury in Pinellas County, Florida rendered a $200 million verdict against the parent company of a nursing home. The lawsuit stemmed from the 2004 death of a resident who fell down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair. The case is particularly interesting not only because the verdict might be the largest in Florida history, but also because no one appeared at trial on behalf of the defendant.

In October 2004, 92 year-old Elvira Nunziata “slipped away” from a group of residents at Pinellas Park Care and Rehabilitation Center, according to the Tampa Bay Times. She entered a stairwell and, still strapped into her wheelchair, fell down about ten stairs. Staff did not notice her absence for at least an hour, and she died soon after the paramedics arrived. Former employees testified that the door to the stairwell should have been locked, but that staff would often leave the door unlocked so they could use it for smoke breaks.

The nursing home reportedly had a history of citations by the state for various violations, as well as complaints for abuse. Former aides said that the nursing home was often understaffed. Testimony at trial also indicated that Nunziata, who began living at the nursing home in August 2003, had a history of illnesses, falls, and other injuries, and was beginning to experience symptoms of dementia. Staff was allegedly aware of Nunziata’s tendency to wander off and did not adequately monitor her. She reportedly had alarms on her wheelchair and clothing that should have alerted staff of her whereabouts.

Nunziata’s son filed suit on behalf of her estate in 2005. The nursing home was managed by Trans Health Management, Inc. The company no longer manages the home, and is now defunct. Its parent company, Trans Health, Inc., is currently subject to a Maryland receivership. This led to interesting questions of liability during the course of the lawsuit. An attorney representing the management company tried to delay the trial on behalf of the receivership, but the trial judge denied the motion.

The management company’s attorney accused the plaintiff of “sandbagging” the receivership by promising not to involve it in the litigation. This caused the receivership not to mount a defense against the lawsuit. The plaintiff argued rather that private equity investors were the real owners of the nursing home, and that they used the management company and other business entities to move assets around and avoid liability, choosing simply not to defend the suit. Regardless of the precise ownership and management structure, the jury found the management company, and presumably its parent company, liable to the tune of $200 million. The verdict consisted of $60 million in compensatory damages and $140 million in punitive damages. With a defunct defendant and a parent company in receivership, it is unfortunately unclear how much of the jury award may ultimately be recoverable. The verdict is nonetheless historic.

The Maryland nursing home lawyers at Lebowitz and Mzhen represent people who have been injured due to abuse or neglect by staff members. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Most Elder Deaths in Nursing Homes are Never Investigated, Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog, January 2, 2012
Another Nursing Home Negligence Lawsuit for Madison County Home, Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog, August 25, 2011
Physical and Verbal Abuse, Fall-related Injuries Investigated in New York Nursing Homes, Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog, August 15, 2011

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