Coronavirus and the Law: Nursing Homes Facing Coronavirus-Related Wrongful Death Lawsuits

May 24, 2020

Since the Coronavirus outbreak began in the United States, we have covered breaking legal news stories such as the lawsuits filed against the Grand Princess Cruise Line and the slew of retaliation lawsuits filed by nurses over wearing unauthorized facemasks. In today’s blog, we provide our readers with an update on the latest lawsuit filing trend resulting from the spread of Coronavirus: wrongful death cases against nursing homes. This movement began with a lawsuit against a Seattle-area nursing home now known for hosting many of the first Coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States. However, families of nursing home residents around the country have quickly followed suit and begun threatening similar litigation against senior care facilities. Today, our blog breaks down this legal trend and tells our readers what to expect from this issue going forward. 

Washington State Nursing Home Faces
First Lawsuit

The Life Care Nursing Home facility in Kirkland, Washington has often been referred to as the “epicenter” of Coronavirus in the United States. This nursing home location in Kirkland, which is located about 10 miles outside of Seattle, is part of a system of more than 200 healthcare facilities operated by Life Care Centers of America Inc. According to a New York Times investigation into the facility’s operations, Life Care staff members first began noticing what they deemed to be a “seasonal influenza” moving through the nursing home in early February. However, as the month went on, Life Care nurses struggled to successfully treat patients experiencing breathing problems and flu-like symptoms, and on February 26, 2020, two Life Care residents died. Three days later, testing confirmed that these residents had died of Coronavirus. 

Panic ensued at the Life Care facility, as news quickly spread of the Coronavirus outbreak within this nursing home. Within just weeks, approximately 2/3 of Life Care’s residents contracted Coronavirus, and 37 people died. As a result of this devastating outbreak, the federal government investigated Life Care’s response to Coronavirus and found it to have been lacking a number of ways. Specifically, this investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) determined that Life Care failed to promptly identify patients with respiratory issues, inform CMS of this outbreak, and maintain a backup doctor when the facility’s primary doctor became sick. CMS fined Life Care $611,000, which was meant to represent 45 days of inadequate healthcare practices. 

Shortly thereafter, the daughter of a deceased resident sued Life Care for wrongful death and fraud in Washington state court. Deborah de los Angeles filed this lawsuit on behalf of her mother, Twilla Morin, who died from Coronavirus on March 4. This lawsuit offers heavy accusations against Life Care by claiming that the nursing home was on high alert since a Coronavirus case was identified in a neighboring county in January 2020, but failed to take the proper precautions for the virus’s outbreak. Namely, de los Angeles alleges that, even when Life Care was aware of the Coronavirus risk to its residents, “[i]nstead of quarantining residents and staff, Defendants admitted new residents and threw a Mardi Gras party.” 

According to de los Angeles, Life Care’s decision to wait 17 days to report the “flu-like outbreak” inside its facility caused the death of Twilla Morin, along with many others. The complaint asserts counts of negligence and fraud, as well as violations of the Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act.  

Nationwide Nursing Homes Now Preparing for More Litigation

The lawsuit on behalf of Twilla Morin in Washington is likely to serve as a model for future litigation against nursing homes throughout the country. In fact, a number of nursing homes are already facing threats of future litigation. For example, the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing in Gallatin, Tennessee recently received a demand letter from the daughter of a deceased resident. Debbie Bolton, the daughter of the deceased, Clara Ruth Summers, sent this letter claiming that Gallatin Center disregarded safety protocols and acted negligently after discovering a Coronavirus outbreak at its nursing home facility. According to Bolton, staff members at the Gallatin Center told her that “there was nothing to worry about” after Bolton’s mother began experiencing symptoms. Bolton insisted on taking her mother to the hospital, where Clara Ruth Summers was diagnosed with Coronavirus and died shortly thereafter. 

Similarly, Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center in Hayward, California is facing a state investigation and probable future litigation over its handling of the Coronavirus outbreak. Here, the family of deceased Gateway resident Costell Akrie filed a complaint with the California Department of Public Health after 41 Gateway residents and 25 staff members contracted Coronavirus. Nine of the residents died, including Costell Akrie.  Acording to the Akrie family, Gateway staff members did not wear gloves, facemasks, or any types of protective gear until mid-March.  The Akrie family stated that it intends to pursue criminal investigations and a lawsuit because Gateway continues to admit new residents and allow current residents to stay inside the facility. 

What to Expect Going Forward

While not many cases have yet been formally filed against nursing homes, courtrooms will likely be flooded with these types of claims over the next few months. One proactive strategy currently being utilized by large healthcare companies is lobbying state legislators for immunity from Coronavirus-related claims. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo already passed such legislation in early April, which granted immunity to medical facilities caring for Coronavirus patients. While this New York law does protect healthcare providers acting in good faith, it still allows parties who have suffered intentional harm, reckless misconduct, or gross negligence to pursue their claims. 

In early April, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a similar executive order, and more recently, the Florida Health Care Association sent Governor Ron DeSantis a letter pleading for the state to implement immunity for healthcare providers. The important takeaway from these immunity laws will be what each state permits in terms of future legal claims. For instance, the New York law’s carve-out providing for extreme misconduct allegations to continue allows victims and their families to seek justice despite the state’s immunity shield. 

Regarding the actual claims, plaintiffs will face similar hurdles as other Coronavirus-related lawsuits, i.e., challenges to the causation element. Namely, claims such as negligence and wrongful death require a plaintiff to show that their injury was caused by the defendant’s wrongful acts. One common defense, which is surely to be asserted under these unique circumstances, is one of a superseding cause. Defendants will likely argue that the Coronavirus outbreak was an unexpected event, especially since arguments concerning superseding causes are often stronger when that cause is a force of nature. 

One important factor in this analysis will be when exactly the healthcare provider received notice of the presence of Coronavirus in their facility, as well as when they began instituting proper precautions. Another relevant factor that could benefit plaintiffs would be the existence of governmental investigations to rely upon. As in the de los Angeles case, where the complaint consistently referenced the government’s findings about Life Care’s negligent actions, plaintiffs in similar cases would greatly benefit from corroborating evidence such as a governmental report. Finally, it will be interesting to see whether courts consider the unique circumstances of this pandemic and raise the bar for negligence claims by altering the applicable standard of care for certain healthcare providers under exceptional stress. 

About Coffman Law Offices, P.C.

Coffman Law is committed to providing superb legal representation for people who are suffering from severe personal injuries or are dealing with the loss of a loved one due to negligence or misconduct. Coffman Law is a results-driven firm focused on ensuring that clients receive the compassion, attention, and consideration that they need to seek adequate redress for injuries or loss. The firm is led by Owner and Founding Partner Brian Coffman, who has dedicated his career to helping accident victims navigate the legal system and obtain redress for their injuries. If you have been injured or lost a loved one, contact Coffman Law today for a free consultation.