John O'Connor

As any retailer will tell you, advising customers to shop elsewhere is never easy. Yet that is exactly what too many senior living operators should be doing – but won’t.

The temptation to admit or keep customers with needs that can’t be met has perhaps never been greater. After all, we are just now emerging from the worst economic downturn in more than eight decades. Certainly, these are tough times. But they are also litigious times. And a questionable decision to keep thousands of dollars can cost an operator millions more.

Case in point: Seattle-based Emeritus was on the receiving end of a $23 million verdict last month in Sacramento, CA. The trial in question involved an 81-year-old woman named Joan Boice.

The lawsuit against Emeritus claimed she was too physically debilitated for admission. The suit also alleged that she developed several deep pressure sores while at Emeritus. Boice died shortly thereafter.

The actual verdict was $22,963,943.81. Jurors tacked on her age in pennies. Attorney Lesley Ann Clement said this was done because the jurors “didn’t want Emeritus to forget her.” I’m guessing a $23 million verdict won’t be forgotten any time soon.

It’s easy to “tsk tsk” Emeritus for what happened. But it’s probably safe to say that many other senior living communities could have just as easily been put on trial.

Nor should this be written off as a cautionary tale for assisted living operators alone. The reality is that many skilled care operators are practically begging local hospitals to trust them with high-need discharges. This new strategy is what many experts call planning for the future. Fair enough.

But those same facilities had better be careful about how much they bite off. Otherwise, it might not be long until the next Lesley Ann Clement does some biting of her own.