Nursing homes are meant to be places of safety and comfort for elderly adults, meaning they should feel assured at all times that they are receiving proper medical care, including specialized medical treatment when needed. It is natural for everyone to require more medical attention as they age. We trust that when we place our elderly loved ones in these homes that they will receive just as much care and attention from their healthcare providers as they would from their own family, if not more. Further, we trust that the physicians and nurses who treat our loved ones are adequately trained and proceed with the highest degree of skill and caution.
However, unfortunately, physicians and nurses do make mistakes. Due to the frail physical nature of many nursing home residents, these mistakes could lead to unwanted diseases that can ultimately cost them their lives. Medical malpractice is a complex branch of personal injury law whereby injured patients can recover against doctors, nurses, or medical facilities for their action or inaction in causing the patients’ injuries. In order to prevail on a medical malpractice claim, the injured party must prove that the healthcare provider breached the relevant standard(s) of care while treating or diagnosing him or her. Within the context of the medical field, the standard of care can comprise accepted practices and procedures of the medical community within a medical provider’s geographic area when treating similar patients with similar medical histories.
In order to recover compensation, just like in all personal injury claims, the injured party must prove that the breach of the standard of care caused his or her injuries. Common types of medical malpractice claims within the context of nursing homes can include misdiagnosis, prescription errors, ignoring patients’ medical needs, or an abuse of medical restraints. Qualified expert witnesses can review medical records and provide testimony needed to meet the plaintiff’s legal burden of proof in court.
Recently, a North Carolina jury awarded the families of three deceased nursing home residents more than $5.2 million in a case against a nursing home and its operators. Del Ray Baird, Elizabeth Jones, and Bettie Mae Kee were all residents of the Blue Ridge Health Care Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they unfortunately died due to the alleged negligence of the facility’s caretakers. At trial, proof was offered that Baird died at the nursing home after his respirator and its alarm were turned off by employees of the nursing home. Kee passed away one year later, also as the result of respirator failure.
These failures led the jury to quickly conclude that the nursing home and its healthcare providers were grossly negligent, and that the “medical negligence of the providers” caused the injuries that led to the tragic death of all three residents. Further, the jury also found that the nursing home’s conduct “was in reckless disregard of the [residents’] rights.”
The majority of the $5.2 million verdict was awarded as punitive damages, a special class of damages designed as punishment towards those who exhibit especially egregious or malicious conduct. The estate of each deceased resident was awarded $1.5 in punitive damages, almost five times as much as the compensatory damages awarded. Large awards of punitive damages reflect the gravity of medical malpractice, especially when elderly loved ones are the victims. Punitive damages can serve as a reminder for healthcare providers that our loved ones’ lives are in their hands. Members of the public expect physicians and nurses to proceed with proper caution and care when treating loved ones in a nursing home.