Jury awards $200 million verdict in nursing home case

Location: Pinellas County, Florida

Plaintiff: Estate of Elvira Nunziata, by and through Richard Nunziata
Defendant: Trans Health Management, Inc.
Amount: $200 million verdict
Compensatory damages: $60 million
Punitive damages: $140 million
Alleged Injuries: Negligence and wrongful death in a case where a woman was left unattended and fell down concrete steps while strapped in a wheelchair

Description: Elvira Nunziata, was a 92-year-old dementia resident at Pinellas Park Care and Rehab Center who, while still belted in her wheelchair, fell down 10 cement stairs to her death. Three different alarm systems – on her clothing, wheelchair and the “emergency only” exit door to the stairwell – should have been in place and turned on to alert staff to Mrs. Nunziata’s whereabouts. But none protected her from the horrific fall that left her broken and bloody.

The staff knew she was active despite being in a wheelchair and was prone to wandering. Investigations by the Pinellas Park Police Department and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration revealed that she had been seen twice earlier that day trying to get through that same door. A maintenance worker, not the nursing staff, found her at the bottom of the staircase. He later said that after Mrs. Nunziata’s death, the facility spent $5,000 to install magnet locks on all of the doors – a simple fix that could have saved her life if they had bothered to do it sooner.

Prior to her death, Mrs. Nunziata also suffered other falls causing injuries, a scabies infestation, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, malnutrition, dehydration, weight loss and poor hygiene. She also suffered various unexplained injuries, including being pushed into a wall and injuring her hand and arm.

Mrs. Nunziata’s former caregivers were called to testify that the facility was chronically short-staffed and short of the most basic supplies. They complained of these conditions to their supervisors, but no action was ever taken to remedy these problems. Furthermore, caregivers confirmed that during state inspections of the home, the facility would increase staff to give the appearance that they were appropriately staffed at all times. Once the inspectors left, staffing would go back down to dangerously low levels.

The lawsuit was originally filed on Dec. 23, 2005, and the trial began on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. This was a default judgment where the jury had to determine damages only. THMI defended the case for four years before instructing the litigation attorneys to abandon the defense in 2010. The jury deliberated for less than an hour before awarding the verdict.  

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