Punitive Damages in Maryland Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect Cases

In general, the damages that are available to a Maryland personal injury plaintiff are designed to put the plaintiff back in the same position they were in before the defendant’s negligent actions impacted their life. Thus, most damages are referred to as “compensatory” damages, because they compensate a plaintiff for the injuries they suffered as a result of the defendant’s conduct. However, in some cases, punitive damages may also be appropriate.

Punitive damages differ from compensatory damages because the focus of a punitive damages award is not on the plaintiff, but on the defendant. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for especially egregious behavior, and to deter future parties from engaging in similar behavior. For this reason, obtaining punitive damages requires proving additional facts. In Maryland, punitive damages cannot be obtained unless the plaintiff can show that the defendant acted with “actual malice.” A recent case illustrates how it can be difficult to obtain punitive damages.

In this case, the plaintiff was the estate of an older woman who passed away while living at the defendant nursing home. After the woman’s death, her estate (the plaintiff) filed a wrongful death claim against the nursing home, claiming that its negligence was the cause of woman’s death. Among other claims, the estate sought punitive damages based on staff members’ failure to care for the woman. The trial court preliminarily approved the claim for punitive damages, and the defendant immediately appealed.

On appeal, the appellate court had to determine whether the lower court was correct to allow the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages to proceed. This required the court to evaluate the plaintiff’s evidence to ensure that it alleged legally sufficient facts to support her claim. The court concluded that it did not, and reversed the lower court’s decision to the contrary.

The appellate court noted that, in this particular jurisdiction, a claim for punitive damages must be supported by evidence showing that the defendant nursing home either “actively and knowingly” engaged in intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Alternatively, the court explained that if the allegations were based on a staff member’s actions, the plaintiff can proceed by establishing that the nursing home condoned this type of conduct.

Here, it was uncontested that the nursing home administration was not responsible for the actions that allegedly led to the woman’s death. Thus, the plaintiff proceeded under a theory that nursing home management condoned the behavior of the staff members. The court agreed with the plaintiff that the staff member’s conduct was “appalling,” but determined that nothing in the record suggested that the conduct was condoned by the nursing home. The court explained that the plaintiff needed to show that the nursing home somehow encouraged or ignored this type of behavior. Because there was no such evidence presented, the court reversed the lower court’s decision and disallowed the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.

Is Your Loved One at Risk?

If you are concerned about the well-being of a loved one in a Maryland nursing home, contact the dedicated Maryland injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC. At our Maryland personal injury law firm, we represent residents and their families in claims against negligent nursing home staff members. We also represent clients in nursing home abuse cases across Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. To learn more, and to discuss your situation with one of our compassionate injury lawyers, call 410-654-3600 to schedule your free consultation today.

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