The families of nursing home neglect victims seldom encounter justice. For the estates of Del Ray and Jacqueline Baird, Bettie Mae and Samuel Kee, and Elizabeth Jones, that was the case until the Fourth Circuit reversed Judge Terrence W. Boyle’s slashing of punitive damages.
A three-judge panel reinstated the award amount determined by a jury, which found the Blue Ridge 2 million.
Health Care Center had willfully neglected residents, leading to their untimely death. One of the plaintiffs’ central arguments had been that the nursing home was understaffed.
Writing on behalf of the panel, Judge Richard Gergel maintained that the understaffing had been deliberate, an argument Judge Boyle had tried to contest. According to the panel, the families had clearly introduced evidence that upper management told employees that there would be a staff reduction for the purpose of saving costs, referring to the cuts as “corporate policy.”
Punitive damages are not always awarded because malicious intent is difficult to prove. However, Gergel wrote that all that is needed for punitive damages to be applicable is to find evidence that the misconduct in question has been “willful or wanton.” The panel determined that this had been proven during trial.
According to the panel’s opinion, “Cuts to staffing and supplies were a deliberate corporate policy enacted to increase profits by millions of dollars. Defendants were repeatedly informed that those cuts placed patients at risk of death or serious injury — patients whose lives were entirely dependent upon Blue Ridge’s diligence in providing care — yet after such warnings, defendants continued to profit by endangering their patients.”
The defendants in the case are three companies that jointly managed Blue Ridge, namely, Blue Ridge of Raleigh, CareOne, and CareVirginia Management. The nursing home neglect lawsuit was filed in 2014. The estates of the five victims claimed that their ventilators were not appropriately monitored, as the machines installed for that purpose were sometimes turned off.
The substandard care provided allegedly also caused residents to suffer infections and falls. Likewise, the plaintiffs presented evidence that victims had received anti-anxiety medication without appropriate monitoring.
The total compensation awarded by the jury last February amounted to $5.2 million in punitive and compensatory damages combined. When the judge slashed the punitive damages, he also ruled that according to the punitive damage caps established in North Carolina, their total amount could not surpass $2.05 million. The panel upheld Boyle’s calculations, and the families will now receive $2.05 million punitive damages instead of the original $4.55 million.
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