North Carolina Assisted Living Center Owners Avoid $1.2 Million Liability

February 3, 2010

The owners of a North Carolina assisted living home have declared bankruptcy and could escape responsibility for what a judge called a pattern of neglect by under-trained and understaffed employees.

Superior Court Judge James Ammons ruled in 2006 that negligence at Countryside Villa in Cumberland County caused resident Joe Cooper to suffer a concussion, respiratory failure that required a breathing tube, and the loss of several teeth in a January 2003 incident, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

The former Marine Corps veteran’s health suffered from a pattern of “egregiously wrongful acts” by under-trained and understaffed employees who hit Cooper and let his diabetes and other ailments get worse, Ammons found.

But before a hearing last week that would place responsibility for the judgment on company owners John and Janice Weeks, the couple filed for bankruptcy. Lawyers for Cooper’s daughter, Barbara, had sought to make the corporate officers individually liable for the actions of their company.

North Carolina long-term care centers aren’t required to carry liability insurance and individual owners are often shielded from personal responsibility in lawsuits against their companies. What’s unusual about Cooper’s case is that many such cases are settled out of court and the details kept private.

The Weeks’ bankruptcy filing means Joe Cooper’s daughter probably won’t see any money from the judge’s order for $1.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

“I was mad, and it’s not because I stood to lose,” said Barbara Cooper, 46, a 25-year state employee. “What I’m mad about is that he is still operating. … He’s gotten away with it. It’s another way for him to thumb his nose at people and say he doesn’t care.”

The couple’s bankruptcy petition cites an annual income of $330,706, along with expenses within a few hundred dollars of that amount. They listed more than $4 million in debt compared with more than $2 million in assets.

John Weeks said that Joe Cooper was a “difficult resident” who would not take his medicine as he should. Weeks said low state reimbursements make it nearly impossible for centers like his to provide high-level care.

“I did not have money to hire lawyers to fight the lawsuit,” said Weeks, 67, a 30-year veteran of the long-term care industry. “I’ve never been able to tell my side of the story, and I think the whole thing would have been different.

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