A controversial decision could be a "nightmare" for the government, a legal expert says.

A federal judge is allowing punitive damage claims to proceed against a Pennsylvania nursing home where lawyers say a woman fell seven times before being transferred with a dislocated hip.

In a ruling issued Jan. 24, U.S. District Court Judge Kim R. Gibson upheld state law and struck down a claim against Golden LivingCenter Hillview that sought punitive damages in the wrongful death of Betty Rowles.

But the judge said he would consider such damages related to other claims because the state allows them when plaintiffs can prove “conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or reckless indifference.”

The court said Eugene Rowles’ case is preliminarily “factually plausible,” but Golden Living could still prove otherwise at trial.

Betty Rowles fell seven times in the Altoona facility, court documents state. She also developed a C. difficile infection and pressure injuries before moving to a rehabilitation center for the final three months of her life, according to court documents.

Golden Living spokeswoman Kelli Luneborg-Stern said Friday that the arguments were “a routine part of the legal process that many lawsuits go through in the state.”

“With regard to this case and our motion to dismiss the punitive damages for the wrongful death claim, the District Court followed the law and ruled in favor of Golden Living on that issue,” she said. “As for the remaining claims in the complaint, the District Court ruled that the Plaintiff’s allegations were not yet proven so the Court would have to determine later in the lawsuit whether the plaintiffs could try to recover punitive damages on those claims.”

Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant for conduct that exceeds a lapse in care. They are rare in Pennsylvania because they can’t be awarded in straightforward cases of gross negligence, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys. Instead, plaintiffs must prove “willful or wanton conduct.”

Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, told Bloomberg Law a provider’s failure to address an increasing problem with falls “is cause for serious concern,” one that providers “too often” fail to address through prevention strategies.

“The tort system plays a very important role in protecting residents,” Smetanka said. “The oversight and enforcement system has been largely inadequate in pushing providers to achieve sustained compliance and improve care practices.”