Nursing home faces possible punitive damages for maintenance supervisor's role in chair-lift death

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A nursing facility in Colorado might have to pay punitive damages because its maintenance supervisor put the wrong safety clip on a mechanical chair lift that malfunctioned and caused a resident's death, a federal court recently ruled.

The incident occurred at the 118-bed Centennial Healthcare Center in Greeley, operated by defendants SSC Greeley Centennial Operating Co. and SavaSeniorCare Administrative Services LLC. A certified nursing assistant was using a chair lift to move Helen Wake, when the safety straps slid off a support bar and Wake fell to the ground, according to court documents. Wake died the next day, on Oct. 12, 2009.

Wake's son brought a wrongful death suit and asked for exemplary damages, also known as punitive damages. The defendants argued that punitive damages are not warranted because Wake's death was not due to “fraud, malice, or willful and wanton conduct,” court papers state.

District Judge William J. Martinez rejected the nursing companies' argument, on the basis that a maintenance supervisor had put an incompatible safety clip on the chair lift. The supervisor, Robert Castillo, was disciplined for using this safety clip. An incident report said he knowingly used a safety clip from a different chair model after a supervisor asked him to replace the clip on the lift involved in Wake's death, the Oct. 10 ruling noted.

Based on this evidence, the judge determined that Castillo's action was willful and wanton, because he knew or should have known that using the wrong clip could endanger a resident. Therefore, the defendants are subject to potential punitive damages, depending on what a jury finds, Martinez ruled.