West Virginia Judge Affirms Most of $91.5M Damage Award

October 24, 2011

A Kanawha County judge has affirmed most of a $91.5 million damage award against a Charleston nursing home in a lawsuit that claimed it failed to properly feed and care for an elderly woman who died hours after leaving the facility.

Media outlets reported Friday that Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib Jr. cut about $400,000 from the jury’s award in the lawsuit against Heartland of Charleston.

In August, jurors found the facility responsible for the fate of 87-year-old Dorothy Douglas, who died of complications from severe dehydration.

Douglas had Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments when she was admitted to Heartland in 2009, and she lived there for three weeks. Her son, Tom Douglas, said in his lawsuit the stay was intended to be temporary, until a bed opened at another facility in Huntington.

Before she arrived at Heartland, Tom Douglas said, his mother could walk and talk.

Three weeks later, she had to use a wheelchair. She died within hours of her transfer to another facility.

The jury awarded $5 million in non-economic damages, but Zakaib ruled that 20 percent of that is subject to West Virginia’s $500,000 cap on such damages in medical malpractice cases.

Heartland’s owner, HCR Manorcare, argued that the entire award should have been subject to the cap. Its lawyers said the company will appeal.

Legislators set the caps on medical negligence damages nearly a decade ago after doctors and health care groups complained that frivolous lawsuits were creating huge spikes in insurance premiums and forcing physicians to leave the state.

The law requires juries to determine the percentage of medical negligence in each case.

In Douglas’ case, jurors determined that 20 percent of Heartland’s negligence was medical.

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