A judge bangs his gavel

Two corporate defendants in a nursing home negligence case that netted plaintiffs a $19 million verdict have been found not liable following post-ruling motions, while a judge reduced punitive damages faced by another co-defendant.

It’s a case of a complicated and multi-layered legal appeal that has paid off in favor of the defendants, including a nursing home management firm that became entangled late in the patient’s care and the eventual lawsuit. 

The estate of Patricia O’Donnell, a Pennsylvania nursing home resident who died at age 70 in late 2019, first reported its concerns about a Delaware County nursing home to state surveyors, who issued no citations in the case. They then sued the facility and its business partners for negligence that led to injuries that allegedly precipitated her death.

Last year, a jury agreed with arguments that ownership and management changes at the Brinton Manor Skilled Nursing Facility led to high turnover and that a lack of nursing policies and procedures affected O’Donnell’s continuity of care. The case targeted the facility itself, under two different operators, and two corporate owners.

In all, the jury awarded the estate $19 million, including $4 million in compensatory damages. The latter included $2 million under the state’s Survival Act and $2 million under the Wrongful Death Act. The verdict also included $7 million in punitive damages to be paid by the nursing home, $6.5 million to be paid by the initial owner, Vita Healthcare, and $1.5 million against Imperial Healthcare Group, which later took over ownership and management.

But after hearing post-trial motions, Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kelly Eckel erased or reduced liability for three of the four defendants in ruling published this week. She agreed with the defendants that awards against Vita and Imperial should not have been permitted because Pennsylvania law allows only one entity to have a “non-delegable duty” in a corporate negligence case, and in this case, that fell to the operator.

Their share of the compensatory penalties and all of their punitive penalties were wiped away when Eckel used a legal ruling known as judgment notwithstanding the verdict. It essentially reverses the jury’s decision.

State surveyors issue no citations

Responding to a second argument, Eckel also reduced punitive damages against another defendant, saying the size of such an award must be “reasonably related” to the state’s interest in punishing and deterring a particular behavior.

Given that, she still allowed the full punitive award against Brinton Manor SNF, saying the ratio the jury gave in relation to compensatory damages was in an acceptable range of 1 to 6 times.

But she significantly reduced the finding against Imperial, which operated the facility as BM Rehab and Nursing after its takeover just weeks before O’Donnell’s death. The judge ruled that the $2 million in punitive damages against an entity that was involved in the facility only for 21 days “is grossly excessive and exorbitant and shocks the Court’s sense of justice.”

She pro-rated the award to $385,000.

In her 42-page ruling, Eckel also noted that, despite a family complaint after O’Donnell’s death, state surveyors declined to cite the facility for any part of O’Donnell’s nursing care. They could not “substantiate care-dependent neglect on behalf of Brinton Manor and from a nursing perspective did not recommend continuing investigation,” court records showed.