AARP asks a California court to uphold a jury verdict in favor of a resident who suffered when his nursing facility violated health, safety, and elder abuse laws. A jury returned a verdict for a nursing facility resident, finding that the facility had violated numerous laws and had been recklessly negligent in its care of Nevarrez. But on appeal, a state appeals court limited the ruling to $500 per person, regardless of how many laws had been broken.
Nevarrez was 79 years old when he was admitted to San Marino Skilled Nursing and Wellness Centre. He was alert but had difficulty standing and walking, and thus was at risk of falling. Within 35 days at the nursing facility, he fell nine times. A lawsuit brought by his family charged the facility with reckless negligence as well as violation of elder abuse laws and the California Patients’ Bill of Rights statute.
At trial, the jury considered information about the number of citations the facility had received from the state as a consequence of Nevarrez’ care. The jury awarded his family (Nevarrez has since died) $7K in damages for each violation suffered. The facility appealed, and the appellate court not only reviewed the damages in this case, but on its own reached beyond the question appealed and considered damage provisions in the law as a whole. The Court of Appeals ruled that the jury should not have seen evidence about the violations of state law and ruled that state law limited damage awards to $500 per person for their life time regardless of how many violations the person suffered or how many days the violations persisted.
AARP and several other national and California advocacy organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Nevarrez’ family asking the court to rehear the dispute so that this very damaging precedent does not remain on the books. The court granted the motion for rehearing and AARP and the other organizations filed a second brief during the rehearing phase. The brief reviews the legislative history of the state’s health and safety code, examines the intent of the law (which was that nursing facility residents be afforded judicial protections because of the limited resources of the state’s licensing and enforcement entity), and explains why violations of the state Patients’ Bill of Rights Act must be evaluated on a case by case basis that looks at each violation separately and calculates damages based on how many days the violations persisted.
What’s at Stake
Leaving the current Court of Appeals ruling on the books has serious and widespread ramifications. As long as it remains, California trial courts can – and in some districts must – rely on it, with tremendous ramifications to undermine accountability at nursing facilities and for compensation of victims. With an understaffed and underfunded enforcement entity and a toothless private right of action, nursing facility residents in California will find themselves at tremendous risk despite the legislature’s specific efforts to protect them.
Nevarrez v. San Marino Skilled Nursing and Wellness Centre is pending for rehearing before the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District, Division Four.