Judge with gavel on table

A nursing home that was the site of the first major COVID-19 outbreak in the US is not liable for the deaths of two residents, a federal jury decided late Friday.

Survivors of the two women had sued Life Care Centers of America and the manager of its Kirkland, WA, facility claiming the provider’s negligence led to wrongful deaths.

Life Care Centers leaders on Monday said they were “thankful and incredibly pleased” to receive a verdict on behalf of the defense.

Reminding jurors just how little was known about the virus, how it was spread or how to prevent it was a key element of the trial. The plaintiffs had argued that the facility should have updated isolation protocols as early as late February, weeks ahead of when federal regulators issued guidance on COVID infection prevention.

“The jury rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that influenza protocols would have prevented COVID-19 from entering our facility and spreading as rapidly as it did,” the company told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News in a statement Monday. 

“After hearing all the arguments from both sides and reviewing the evidence presented to them, the jury came to the same conclusion that we have understood all along: Our associates at Life Care Center of Kirkland did everything they could to prevent COVID-19 from entering their facility,” Life Care added. “Once it did, they diligently followed the guidance they received from local, state, CDC, and CMS [officials] and fought valiantly to protect and care for their residents.”

The case is an important one for the skilled nursing sector, which is still trying to understand how well some legal protections instituted during the pandemic’s early days will hold up.

In addition to the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, or PREP, Act, at least 30 states enacted their own immunity provisions that aimed to protect healthcare working in good faith as pandemic guidance changed rapidly in COVID’s first months.

Bloomberg Law last week reported that legal questions about shields are surfacing, especially with the end of the public health emergency.

“Some courts have questioned whether states went too far in eliminating people’s right to sue for medical negligence that may not have been Covid-related,” experts told Bloomberg.

The Kirkland case provides an important boost for providers who are uncertain how they might fare in civil cases allowed to proceed where such protections don’t exist or are voided by a court. The defense tactics may be replicated by others looking to avoid liability in cases in which providers were unprepared and underresourced for a fight against a then brand-new virus.

“Through the testimony of the on-the-ground team members who cared for residents during an unprecedented emergency, the defendants emphasized that their hardworking staff, administrators, and providers were doing their best under rapidly evolving circumstances, with very little concrete guidance from regulatory authorities,” said Kierstan Schultz, a complex disputes attorney for law firm Nixon Peabody. Schultz was not involved in the case but concentrates her healthcare practice on commercial litigation and civil cases.

“It appears that the defendants’ counsel effectively harnessed their experts to highlight weaknesses in the plaintiffs’ counsel’s causal theories,” she added. “It appears defense experts were able to empirically demonstrate the unprecedented speed with which the novel coronavirus infected nursing facility residents, causing rapid health decline.”

Painting a vivid picture, the defense was able to bring the jurors’ perspectives back to February 2020 and remind them how “little was then known about the mechanics of COVID-19 transmission or the means to identify or test for its presence,” Schultz said.

After the verdict, Life Care President Todd Fletcher said he “could not be prouder of our leadership and associates at Life Care Center of Kirkland.”

After a regulatory investigation into events at Kirkland, the company was fined more than $600,000 and awarded a red hand to indicate patient abuse had occurred. But the 190-bed facility has maintained its 5-star quality rating and a 4-star staffing rating.

“Like employees at all skilled nursing facilities, our associates at Kirkland have experienced a lot of ups and downs the past three years, but their commitment to providing excellent and compassionate care to their residents and family members has never wavered,” Fletcher said.”The loss of life was tragic, and the pain it caused goes deep. However, the villain was COVID-19, not the caring associates who put their own lives at risk to do their jobs with incredible bravery and skill.”

In its statement, the company said it was grateful the verdict shed light on the “heroic efforts” of frontline workers and building leaders.

“We are also grateful to the Kirkland community for their faithful support and for the countless acts of kindness community members have extended to our associates and residents,” the company said.