Plaintiff Shirley Arnold brought a medical malpractice claim on behalf of 70-year-old Edward Arnold. Mr. Arnold was a resident at Whitestone Care Center, which is owned by the Saber Healthcare Group and Saber Healthcare Holdings Inc. The suit alleged that Edward had fallen several times, suffered broken bones and developed pneumonia all while a resident at Whitestone.
The defendants were accused of maintaining insufficient staffing levels at the facility although there were complaints from staff members, residents, and their families. The Department of Health had documented a poor record of compliance associated with the facility. The claim stated that management knowingly understaffed in efforts to reduce their operating costs, despite the negative impact it had on resident safety. A jury in Monroe County awarded the plaintiff $1 million which consisted of $250,000 in non-economic damages and $750,000 in punitive damages.
Mr. Arnold had initially entered Whitestone following a lower leg amputation to rehabilitate. The facility claimed that they would provide key services including skilled nursing, occupational and physical therapy and more. Shirley Arnold explained that he did not receive adequate care and endured falls that resulted in head injuries and a hip fracture. Shortly after these injuries, he was transferred to Pocono Medical Center, a location not affiliated with the defendants. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid had maintained the nursing home on a “watch list” during Arnold’s residency there. This list was comprised of facilities that were unsatisfactorily performing in aspects such as safety and quality care. The jury listened to witnesses confirming that Whitestone was consistently below proper staffing levels and appeared to disregard criticisms.
The defendants were determined to have demonstrated recklessness in addressing their staffing, as their levels were below that which would allow for proper resident care. It was also suggested that management had little interest in improving resident health because the facility received higher reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid when caring for those with more significant medical conditions. Mr. Arnold was unfortunately extremely dependent on the staff for his daily needs, which were not met and led to his rapid physical decline and wrongful death. An attorney for the plaintiff stated that the ruling showed that providers who act negligently toward some of the most vulnerable individuals in the community may face harsh consequences.
Pennsylvania law allows for the recovery of punitive damages in negligence actions against health care professionals. This applies when the defendant has shown willful or wanton behavior or been recklessly indifferent to the needs of individuals. Juries are tasked with determining the appropriateness of punitive damages based in part on the defendant’s actions, the extent of harm that resulted and whether or not actions (or inactions) were done intentionally.
Actions that are based on gross negligence, which the courts consider to be those which extend beyond “ordinary carelessness, laxity, or indifference”, are not sufficient by themselves to justify awarding punitive damages. The total amount of damages available is up to 200% of the awarded compensatory damages.