Nice try, but no cigar

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Upon the initial reading, it appeared that Skilled Healthcare, the tenth-largest skilled nursing provider in the United States, had a good beef. Apparently the jury that slammed it with an eye-popping $677 million in damages was poisoned by a vindictive juror.

In filing for a mistrial, the company alleged that the juror had spoken badly of Skilled Nursing and also lied about having prior opinions of the company. There was even talk about the juror scrawling derogatory notes on a notebook during the trial and flashing them to other jurors.

Defense lawyers really sounded like the might have found a way out of the huge award, believed to be the biggest in the United States this year, and one that has threatened to drive the nursing giant into bankruptcy.

Hogwash. That was prosecutors' response. They called some of Skilled Healthcare's allegations nothing short of fantasy, and took a few deft backhands at the company's defense team in the process.

Then the gavel came thundering down late last week: no mistrial. Not only that, but the court made sure the ropes didn't loosen on Skilled Healthcare. The company has a bit of breathing room, while negotiators attempt to figure a way out of the mess. But it isn't a rosy picture.

Countless providers are holding their breath on this one because plaintiff lawyers around the country are licking their chops to file similar lawsuits if they ever get a chance.

Typically in litigation like this, settlement talks between the two parties will reduce damages to something far less eye-popping. Such agreements cut off the battle, lessen the red tape and usually allow the defendant to continue tending to its residents.

Remember that this is what's at the core of the whole mess: caregiving. Skilled Healthcare was whacked for not providing enough nursing hours to its residents. When 32,000 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit complain in court and win, you have a real problem.

Skilled Healthcare CEO Boyd Hendrickson said the company would appeal, but has not said much else publicly. He's been through many big battles and survived a lot through the years. No final judgment has been entered yet and it could happen again.

But there aren't too many fellow CEOs lining up to trade places with him right now. For now at least, it's still the other side puffing the victory cigars.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.