The sweeping liability laws passed for long-term care facilities in the wake of COVID-19 have led to nursing homes using the pandemic as an excuse for other types of lawsuits.
In a North Carolina case currently going through the courts, the nursing home claims it is shielded from liability in the case of a resident who died from blunt force trauma, not COVID-19.
Plaintiff attorneys nationally are now contending the laws are shielding these facilities from liability regarding harm to residents who were not COVID-19 victims.
Why Laws Were Passed
When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, nursing homes bore the brunt of the sick and dead. Personal protective equipment was hard to obtain. The industry sought and received legal immunity from the moving coronavirus target.
To date, about 185,000 nursing home and assisted-living facility residents have died from COVID-19.
A Violent Attack
In September 2020, Garland Garrett Jr., 80, a resident of the assisted-living facility Spring Arbor of Wilmington, succumbed to blunt force trauma, as per the county’s medical examiner. He had been the victim of a violent attack by another resident with dementia several days earlier. Garrett was in his bed at the time of the incident.
An inspection by state and county health authorities cited Spring Arbor with the highest level of violation per North Carolina’s regulations for failure to supervise care. The state and county inspection report listed examples of the man responsible for attacking Garrett attacking other people, roaming around in the nude, and urinating in public. The man has since died.
When Garrett’s family filed a lawsuit, Spring Arbor alleged the facility was immune from liability under the state’s pandemic immunity law, even though the death had nothing to do with the pandemic. Dr. Greg Garrett, a dentist, said the facility was getting a free pass for negligence in the wake of his father’s death.
In another North Carolina case, the family of Palestine Howze is suing Treyburn Rehabilitation Center, Durham. Her daughters say their mother’s death had nothing to do with COVID-19, but resulted from an infected bedsore that the facility did not treat properly.
This facility has a federal government nursing home rating of one, the lowest in its 1 to 5 scale. Staffing levels were below average. North Carolina’s immunity law specifically exempts low staffing levels as a negligence argument. Prior to the pandemic, Treyburn has been fined nearly $200,000 by the government in the past three years.
The Howze sisters regularly visited and helped care for their mother until the pandemic barred them from seeing her. They cited the poor care their mother received while they were attending to her, including lack of bathing or feeding.
When they asked nursing home officials to send her to the emergency room to treat her deeply infected wound, Treyburn authorities refused, using the pandemic as an excuse.
A judge dismissed the case, citing the immunity law. The family plans to appeal.