The Arkansas Supreme Court found that the sole member of a nursing home’s governing body owed no personal duty to a patient whose health allegedly declined due to negligent care in a case that could set new precedent for future litigation.
In May 2004, Minnie Valentine suffered a stroke and was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock. After her discharge, she entered into the care of Little Rock Healthcare & Rehab (LRHC) upon which she was totally dependent.
Valentine’s health declined after she entered the nursing home and was treated off and on at Baptist Hospital. She left LRHC in August 2004, was admitted to Quapaw Quarter Nursing Center and Rehab, received treatments from specialists at Arkansas Heart Hospital and died in February 2005.
Brenda Williams, the personal representative of Valentine’s estate, filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court against Arkansas Health Care Management, Care Options and Hearland Personnel Leasing – all companies involved in running LRHC. She also filed suit against LRHC and Donald B. Bedell, who was either president or a member of the board of directors for each of those companies.
The plaintiffs alleged that Bedell was ultimately responsible for the management and control of LRHC and that he slashed budgets at LRHC – a move that led to the deterioration of Valentine’s health. The court agreed and, in November 2010, entered a judgment of $5.1 million against LRHC for negligence and violation of the Residents’ Rights Act; $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages against Bedell for negligence; and $350,000 against Heartland for negligence.
The defendants appealed.
Williams’ attorneys argued that Bedell owed a duty to Valentine under a Code of Federal Regulations rule (42 C.F.R. §483.75(d)) that states all nursing homes wanting to participate in Medicaid and Medicare must have a governing body that is legally responsible for establishing and implementing policies regarding the management and operation of those facilities. As Bedell was the sole member of the governing body of LRHC, Williams claimed he owed a personal duty to Valentine and breached that duty.
The Supreme Court, in its opinion released last week, said a negligence claim cannot be successful unless the facts establish there was a duty and it was violated. The Supreme Court held the rule upon which Williams based her negligence claim against Bedell did not create that duty and dismissed Bedell from the suit.
The Arkansas Health Care Association applauded the decision, stating the notion that one has to be personally involved in the care of another to be found negligent is well established and should remain.
“The Association is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision today,” a statement from Arkansas’ largest organization of long term care providers reads. “The law has always recognized, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that individual liability requires personal involvement in the events surrounding an injury.”
The Arkansas Trial Lawyers (ATLA) has a different view of the impact of the decision.
“From what I gather about the case, the ruling creates a potentially more dangerous environment for nursing home residents,” said ATLA Director of Public Affairs Nathan Pittman. “Our tort system was designed to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions and ensure that they abide by the law. If nursing home owners can’t be held responsible for the harms done in their homes, it seems they would be less likely to operate those homes in a responsible manner.”
As for the remaining defendants – LRHC and Heartland – the Supreme Court sent the case back to Pulaski County Circuit Court for a new trial.
This story was authored by Ethan Nobles with FirstArkansasNews.net. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].