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Shuts v. Covenant Holdco

Court Allows Care Facility Negligence Lawsuit to Be Heard

    

AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief urged a California appeals court to overturn a lower court’s ruling that dismissed a lawsuit brought on behalf of the residents in the Covenant Care nursing facility chain, one of the largest in California, for allegedly failing to provide adequate staffing in its facilities.

Background

Nursing facilities are subject to certain health and safety laws and regulations, both state and federal. However, noncompliance with both federal and state standards is rampant throughout the industry. In 2007, more than 91 percent of the facilities were cited for violations of federal health and safety standards, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, with approximately 17 percent of nursing facilities committing one or more violations that caused “actual harm or immediate jeopardy” to residents.

In an effort to increase protections to residents of these facilities, the California legislature enacted nursing facility protections that include a “private right of action” for victims and families of those who allege they have received negligent care. A private right of action allows for these parties to sue care facilities directly to change bad behavior and seek damages for violations of their rights without requiring victims and their families to wait for oversight authorities to take enforcement action.

This law was invoked by the family of Charles Shuts on his behalf and that of other residents of Covenant Care, who were deprived of adequate staffing levels in violation of the state’s law. The lawsuit seeks not only damages, but also changes in the way the care facility does business, including increasing staffing levels in all of the defendant’s 16 California care facilities. A trial court dismissed the case, claiming that the regulatory mechanisms in place were best suited for addressing the technical questions of care facility neglect related to staffing.

Attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation, in conjunction with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, filed AARP’s brief in Shuts v. Covenant Holdco, LLC. The brief reviewed the stated reasons the legislature enacted the private right of action — the extreme vulnerability of facility residents, the history of neglect and abuse residents have faced in facilities, and the inability of state regulators to either fund or to actually conduct the inspections needed to ensure care — and pointed out that the lower court’s decision effectively nullifies this explicit and carefully enacted state statute.

After reviewing how similar claims were treated by other California courts, the appeals court ruled that under California law the plaintiffs had a right to be heard in court — not just by a regulatory agency — and allowed the case to proceed

What’s at Stake

It is imperative to utilize all avenues for protection of the rights of nursing facility residents and their families.

Case Status

Shuts v. Covenant Holdco, LLC returns to the Alameda County Superior Court for further proceedings.


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Our legal advocacy initiatives  - conducted by AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) - reflect more than 15 years of work in federal and state courts across the country. Through our efforts, we support the Foundation’s four priority areas: Hunger, Income, Housing and Isolation, and ensure that those 50 and older have a voice in the laws and policies that affect their daily lives.