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California Nursing Home Patients Can Privately Enforce Nursing Home Standards

Nursing home residents victimized by nursing home negligence can now sue to enforce nursing home standards in a private lawsuit, thanks to a recent ruling by the California Supreme Court. This is a major ruling because patients no longer have to wait to file a report with the state Department of Public Health before enforcing their legal rights.

On November 14, 2012, the California Supreme Court ruled against healthcare provider Covenant Care, Inc. The Court unanimously found the corporation to be in violation of the Elder Abuse Act, stating that it blatantly and severely abused elders in its custody.

Covenant Care is a northern-California based company, with 16 nursing homes in Alameda County. The ruling allowed a group of nursing home residents and their families to privately sue Covenant Care, who allegedly violated state nurse-staffing standards over a four-year period. Nursing home abuse lawyers at Pintas & Mullins are encouraged by this recent step towards improving access to the courts for victims of nursing home neglect.

The case was brought before the Supreme Court after Covenant Care fought for dismissal, arguing that private residents were not authorized to sue on this matter. The company claimed that only state regulators had the power to enforce standards. The state Department of Public Health, however, has not been able to enforce the nurse-staffing standards. The court denied Covenant’s appeal.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Juan Inclan, who allegedly died as a result of nursing home neglect. The suit alleges that the elder care facility violated Inclan’s right to live in an adequate and safe nursing home facility, and seeks punitive damages as well as general damages for willful misconduct, pain and suffering, elder abuse, wrongful death, and a number of other violations.

Inclan’s children filed the lawsuit, claiming that their father suffered from Parkinson’s disease, but Covenant did not adequately provide him with proper care, nutrition, and medication. They allege that their father was left in bed, unattended and unassisted for extremely long periods, without the ability to feed or hydrate himself. As a result, he developed pressure ulcers on his body (commonly referred to as bed sores), which exposed bone and muscle and ultimately led to sepsis.

The family claims that Covenant repeatedly and maliciously transferred their father between numerous facilities in order to maximize Medicare and Medicaid profits. Additionally, while at these facilities, he was only administered hospice services and deprived him of his essential right to skilled nursing services.

Because the victim was unable to feed, hydrate, and care for himself, he began to manifest signs of starvation, dehydration, neglect and abuse. The family alleges that Covenant staff deliberately failed to report these signs to the family and to state authorities as they were legally required to do. Inclan died one week after he was transferred to a 24-hour care setting, which the lawsuit alleges was the direct and proximate result of staff neglect.

The Elder Abuse Act was enacted in California in 1982, the purpose of which was to require health care employees and service to report known or suspected cases of abuse, collect statistics on the victims and facts surrounding their cases, and provide legal protection for all victims. According to the lawsuit, Covenant Care violated all three provisions of the Elder Abuse Act. The act also addresses the requirements of investigation and criminal prosecution of such cases.

Each year, 200,000 Californians are victims of elder abuse. This case is indicative of an elder healthcare system in need of reform. The Supreme Court ruling is important in this respect because it shows that that the California Department of Public Health was unable to enforce the standards of nursing home staffing. This case illuminates the incompetence of the public system in investigating and prosecuting criminal elder abuse, likely due to funding shortages and under-staffing problems. Our nursing home neglect attorneys understand the importance of allowing nursing home victims a private remedy in order to protect their legal rights.