Mary and her husband Jacob Stevens were residents of Beachwood Pointe Care Center. Mary suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), arthritis, incontinence, dementia and renal disease. She was confined to a wheelchair, but was unable to operate the manual chair herself. Based on her ailments, she was at risk for pressure ulcers (bedsores) and required repositioning every two hours for prevention. One night, her husband “towed” her with his power chair in her manual chair by attaching a belt to both. As they entered a dining room, Mary’s chair got caught on a door, and the momentum knocked her to the floor. It was determined that Mary had a hip fracture. Several weeks later, Mary began developing bed sores, thus additional care was ordered. She died days later with causes of death being infected bedsores, kidney disease and hypertension.
The Stevens’ estate sued claiming her death was the result of negligence. At trial, the plaintiff called Dr. Tim Klein as an expert witness, who is a doctor of internal medicine. The doctor was asked to interpret what constitutes malicious behavior. Klein gave a lengthy description stating that he believed the behavior would be of a willful and wanton nature. He further explained that this behavior would be done with a conscious disregard for the safety of others, or indifference to the danger. The jury awarded the plaintiff $440,000 in compensatory damages, $560,000 in punitive damages and $31,000 for legal fees. The defendant, after having a motion denied for a reduction in the award, proceeded with an appeal.
The Ohio appeals court reversed the decision, which vacated the award for damages. The basis for the ruling was a lack of evidence specifically related to the assertion that the facility acted with malice in caring for Stevens. Judge Patricia A. Blackmon stated that the defendant did not act in an intentional manner that knowingly would cause significant harm; further explaining that there was no evidence indicating ill-will, hate, or vengeful purpose. For an award of punitive damages, which was $560,000 in this case, the defendant must exhibit malice. Under Ohio law, the acts must be deemed as more than simple negligence. For malice to be determined, the defendant must display hateful or vengeful disregard for the safety or rights of others despite the likelihood of significant harm. The appeals court also objected to the testimony on behalf of the plaintiff from Dr. Klein. The court stated that expert witnesses (here a medical doctor) should not be called upon to interpret the law in testimony, as that is solely the job of the court.
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