SNF off the hook for $790,000 in damages in fall case, court rules

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A Kentucky nursing home won't have to pay $790,000 in punitive damages in a case that claimed facility negligence caused a resident's fall and eventual death, an appellate court ruled on Friday.

Roger Collins, a resident of Hilltop Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility in Owingsville, KY, fell from his wheelchair in 2007, sustaining neck fractures that required him to wear a halo brace. Collins' family sued the facility claiming it was negligent in his fall, keeping the halo screw sites clean and making sure he was hydrated. Collins died just over two months after the fall, according to court records.

A jury awarded the family $790,000 in punitive damages and $289,000 in compensatory damages in 2015. Hilltop appealed the jury's decision.

In an opinion released Friday, a panel with the Kentucky Court of Appeals found that while Hilltop was negligent and violated the standard of care in Collins' case, not enough evidence exists to show the facility was grossly negligent. Since gross negligence is required to levy punitive damages, the court reversed the previous judgment.

“Even viewing Hilltop's entire course of conduct over both periods and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the Estate, the evidence did not support a finding of gross negligence,” the opinion reads.

A request for comment from Hilltop's legal representative was not returned by production deadline Monday.

The appellate panel affirmed the trial court's award of compensatory damages, as well as a decision to change the venue of the trial since many members of the original jury panels had relatives that worked or resided in a nursing home also owned by Hilltop's owner.