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Court Rules Hospitals can be Sued under Elder Abuse Laws

Elder abuse lawyers at Pintas & Mullins highlight a recent decision by the Arizona State Court of Appeals, rendering hospitals subject to litigation under elder abuse laws. The judge stated that there was simply no other way to logically read the law.

In her decision, the judge wrote that the law in no way suggested that an acute care hospital could or should be exempt from liability for abuse of senior citizens. The contentious lawsuits were filed by families of loved ones injured in two separate Arizona hospitals.

The families always had an option to file more basic medical malpractice claims against the hospitals, however, given the sensitive and catastrophic nature of the circumstances, felt that filing suit under the elder abuse law was more fitting. Additionally, Arizona places damage caps on medical malpractice verdicts (an issue we have written extensively about, as more 30 states impose such restrictions), while such limits do not exist in elder abuse claims.

If a plaintiff is successful under an elder abuse claim, they can not only recover the full financial damages they have suffered, but require the defendant to pay for all other out-of-pocket expenses as well, including for investigations and expert witnesses. Such recoveries are not typically possible in malpractice claims. The distinction is important, particularly for the elderly, who require increased medical attention than the average adult. As a result of the caps, an injured plaintiff, while suing for medical malpractice, may only ultimately obtain $50,000 in damages for an infected bed sore because of the restrictions even though their medical bills exceeded $100,000.

As stated, the ruling involved two separate cases of elder abuse from two Arizona acute care hospitals. In both situations, the senior citizens died in the hospitals, and their surviving family members filed the claims. Both families claim that the hospitals violated the Adult Protective Services Act of 1989 in their care. Initially, judges threw out the families’ claims, saying hospitals were exempt from the Act, saying it applied only to those who “provide care,” such as an at-home caregiver.

The Court of Appeals adamantly disagreed, rejecting the lower courts’ opinion that the definition of “providing care” was too ambiguous. The Appeals judge stated the meaning of “care” extended to anyone responsible for the attention to safety and well-being of a patient, and that it is readily clear that hospitals provide such care to their patients.

One of the cases involved the estate of Helen Wyatt, who was prescribed to nearly 350 medications and medical interventions during her time at Phoenix Baptist Hospital. The other case involved the death of Karl Khufuss Jr., who died after undergoing three surgeries and post-surgical care at John C. Lincoln Hospital.

The judge stated that, had the lawmakers intended in 1989 to exclude hospitals, they would have done so in the language. Instead, lawmakers intentionally used a broader definition, so that any corporation, partnership, labor union, legal entity, or association may be included who is providing care to a vulnerable adult. She rightfully affirmed that interpreting the law in such an arbitrary manner to exclude all hospitals would severely and unjustly limit the remedies available to vulnerable or incapacitated adults who are being harmed by their caregivers.

Elder abuse attorneys at Pintas & Mullins applaud the efforts of these families and of the Arizona Court of Appeals, for making the right decisions in this case that will likely have positive impact throughout the state. If you or a loved one was seriously injured by the negligence or abuse of a caregiver, you have important legal rights, any may be entitled to compensation for your medical bills and emotional distress.

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