West Virginia Medical Malpractice Suit Could Affect Reforms

West Virginia Medical Malpractice Suit Could Affect ReformsIn early August 2011, a jury in Kanawha County, West Virginia awarded $91.5 million in damages to the family of Dorothy Douglas, an 87-year-old woman who died at the Heartland of Charleston nursing home after the staff at the facility allegedly failed to feed and care for her, the Charleston Gazette reports.

The trial lasted nearly two weeks and lawyers for Douglas’ family argued that workers at the nursing home indirectly caused the woman’s death. The family claims the woman died from complications from dehydration in 2009. Dorothy Douglas suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.

According to the Gazette, lawyers on both sides of the case are preparing for an appeal to the state Supreme Court on the grounds that the award bestowed by the jury is subject to the state’s medical malpractice caps. Lawyers for the nursing home believe that the caps will apply, meaning the verdict would be reduced to $500,000 in non-economic damages, for pain, suffering and punitive damages.

Douglas’ lawyers, however, do not believe that the caps apply because nurse aides do not qualify as healthcare providers under the definition of the cap, according to the news source. Additionally, the details of the case showed that the alleged negligence by the aides was in regards to food and water.

“There’s nothing ‘mediciney’ about that,” explained one of Douglas’ lawyers to the news source. “Common sense dictates you need to get them some water or they’re going to dehydrate.”

According to the publication, Douglas was able to walk, speak and recognize family members when she was admitted to Heartland of Charleston. However, by the time she was transferred to the Heritage Center nursing home three weeks later, she was allegedly unresponsive, 15 pounds lighter and severely dehydrated.

Lawyers for the Douglas family, in closing arguments at the trial, told the jury that the nursing home did not have enough staff members to care for residents properly because of high turnover. Former workers at the nursing home testified that properly caring for every resident was nearly impossible because of the alleged working conditions.

According to the West Virginia Record, this medical malpractice lawsuit could affect the state’s reformation of the laws regarding the crime. The current limit of $500,000 on non-economic damages for medical negligence was put in place in 2003 by the state legislature after much public debate.

Lawyers for Heartland of Charleston believe that the state medical malpractice cap will apply, the publication reports.

However, some state legal experts argue that nursing homes may not even be included under West Virginia’s medical liability reforms. In the eyes of Richie Heath, executive director of the West Virgina Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, nursing homes certainly are included in the laws. In fact, he told the news source that nursing homes were mentioned in the Legislative Findings and Declaration of Purpose. Heath also believes that nurses are included under the law as healthcare professionals.

“Healthcare provider means a person, partnership, corporation, professional limited liability company, healthcare facility or institution licensed by, or certified in, this state or another state, to provide healthcare or professional health services,” he explained to the publication.

According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, between 1 and 2 million Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited or mistreated by someone who is supposed to care for them or offer protection. They agency also estimates that for every case of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation, approximately five more go unreported.