Delaware County, Pennsylvania – Two corporate defendants in a nursing home negligence case, which resulted in a $19 million verdict for the plaintiffs, have been found not liable after post-ruling motions. Additionally, a judge has reduced the punitive damages faced by another co-defendant.
The case revolves around the estate of Patricia O’Donnell, a resident of a Delaware County nursing home who passed away in late 2019. The estate initially reported concerns about the nursing home to state surveyors, who did not issue any citations. Subsequently, they filed a lawsuit against the facility and its business partners, alleging negligence that led to injuries contributing to O’Donnell’s death.
Last year, a jury agreed that ownership and management changes at the Brinton Manor Skilled Nursing Facility had resulted in high turnover and a lack of nursing policies and procedures. The case targeted the facility itself, under two different operators, and two corporate owners.
The jury awarded the estate $19 million in total, including $4 million in compensatory damages. This amount comprised $2 million under the state’s Survival Act and $2 million under the Wrongful Death Act. Additionally, the verdict included $7 million in punitive damages to be paid by the nursing home, $6.5 million by the initial owner (Vita Healthcare), and $1.5 million by Imperial Healthcare Group, which later assumed ownership and management.
However, the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kelly Eckel, after considering post-trial motions, eliminated or reduced liability for three of the four defendants. The judge agreed with the defendants’ argument that only one entity can have a “non-delegable duty” under Pennsylvania law in a corporate negligence case, which, in this instance, was the operator.
As a result of a legal ruling called judgment notwithstanding the verdict, Eckel wiped away the compensatory penalties allocated to Vita and Imperial, as well as their punitive penalties. This ruling essentially overturns the jury’s decision.
Additionally, Eckel reduced the punitive damages against another defendant, stating that the size of such an award must be “reasonably related” to the state’s interest in punishing and deterring a particular behavior. Nevertheless, she allowed the full punitive award against the Brinton Manor SNF, considering the jury’s ratio in relation to compensatory damages to be acceptable within the range of 1 to 6 times.
The judge significantly reduced the punitive damages against Imperial, which operated the facility as BM Rehab and Nursing for just 21 days before O’Donnell’s death. Eckel deemed the $2 million punitive award against this entity as “grossly excessive and exorbitant and shocks the Court’s sense of justice” and adjusted it to $385,000.
In her 42-page ruling, Eckel also highlighted that despite a family complaint following O’Donnell’s death, state surveyors did not cite the facility for any part of her nursing care. The surveyors were unable to confirm “care-dependent neglect on behalf of Brinton Manor” and did not recommend further investigation from a nursing perspective.
To summarize, two corporate defendants in a nursing home negligence case have been absolved of liability in a post-ruling decision, while another co-defendant has had their punitive damages significantly reduced. The complex legal appeal ultimately favored the defendants, involving changes in ownership and management at the facility in question and a dispute regarding a “non-delegable duty” in corporate negligence cases according to Pennsylvania law. The ruling also highlighted the lack of citations issued by state surveyors regarding the nursing care of the deceased resident.