State high court upholds class action status in understaffing suit against SNF

The Supreme Court published its opinion on Thursday.
The Supreme Court published its opinion on Thursday.

A wrongful death complaint filed against an Arkansas nursing home may continue as a class action lawsuit, the state's supreme court ruled on Thursday.

The case was filed in 2015 by Andrew Phillips, the son of a resident of Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Little Rock, AR, who died in 2014. The complaint states that Robinson, along with Central Arkansas Nursing Centers Inc., Nursing Consultants Inc., and businessman Michael Morton, practiced “chronic understaffing” in the facility.

That understaffing breached the admission and provider agreements, violated the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, “unjustly” enriched Robinson, and counted as negligence and civil conspiracy, Phillips argued. He filed for class action certification of the lawsuit.

A circuit court granted the case class certification last year, stating “all residents and estates of residents who resided at the Robinson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center from June 11, 2010, to present” could participate in the class. Robinson appealed the circuit court's decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In an opinion published Thursday, the high court upheld the class action status for all of Phillips' claims except negligence, since negligence claims are “highly individualized” in nature.

“Each class member's claim would result in an individualized inquiry as to whether understaffing was the proximate cause of his or her injury,” wrote Associate Justice Karen R. Baker.

The allegations made against Robinson in the suit have yet to be ruled on by a court, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. A spokesman for Morton, Robinson's owner, told the newspaper his legal representatives would not comment on the court's ruling, since the case is still pending.

The lawsuit against Morton made headlines last November, when another justice with the Arkansas Supreme Court who received campaign funds from the businessman said she saw no conflict of interest and would stay on the case. Morton also donated campaign funds to another judge, Michael Maggio, in exchange for the judge dropping a judgment against one of Morton's facilities from $5.2 million to $1 million. Maggio was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the scheme.