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W.Va. Supreme Court Hears Nursing Home Verdict Appeal

Reported: Mar. 5, 2014 7:07 PM EST
Updated: Mar. 5, 2014 8:56 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Kennie Bass) -- The question before the West Virginia Supreme Court certainly doesn't appear to be whether the estate of Dorothy Douglas should receive punitive damages following her death after a short stay at Heartland of Charleston Nursing Home. At least not according to the chief justice.

"I didn't talk about punitives before I sat down before," defense attorney Ben Bailey said.

Chief Justice Robin Davis of the West Virginia Supreme Court interrupted.

"Don't even say that they're (punitive damages) not warranted in this case. What that woman went through for 19 days was horrible," she said.

Instead, the court is being asked to decide how much money should be granted to Douglas' estate. Bailey argued that nursing homes fall under West Virginia's medical malpractice liability cap, which is $500,000. A circuit court jury awarded Douglas' estate $90 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

"That's an error," Bailey said. "I believe of substantive law and trial process that makes this verdict unfair and contradictory to the settled law of West Virginia."

The Douglas family attorney says much of the neglect she suffered while staying at Heartland was not medical in nature. Mike Fuller argues it was negligence due to how the home was operated.

"Because this case is about more than the MPLA," Fuller said. "This case is about what happened to Miss Douglas. What happened because of corporate decisions made by a large nursing home chain that operates these facilities across the country. And Miss Douglas is only one, but exemplifies the care or lack of care provided in these homes."

Healthcare providers and attorneys are watching this case very closely. Bailey argues that nursing home litigation in the state is at a virtual standstill until the court renders a decision. And that decision could have a big impact on medical costs throughout West Virginia.

"What will happen after this case comes out, insurance companies are going to decide what premiums to charge healthcare providers and if big verdicts stand premiums are gonna increase," Patrick Kelly, with the West Virginia Healthcare Association, said.

The court can send the case back to the lower court, amend the damages that were awarded or do nothing and let the verdict stand.

A decision on the matter isn't expected for several weeks.



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