A Pinellas County jury returned a $200 million verdict recently in a nursing home abuse case that resulted in an elderly woman’s death. Elvira Nunziata, a 92-year-old dementia resident at Pinellas Park Care and Rehab Center, while still belted in her wheelchair, fell down ten 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 the resident’s whereabouts. But none of the systems protected her from the horrific fall that left her broken and bloody.
Mrs. Nunziata was a resident at the facility from Aug. 14, 2003 until her death on Oct. 12, 2004. The staff knew she was active despite being in a wheelchair and was prone to wandering. Testimony at trial revealed that the facility was chronically short-staffed and short of the most basic supplies. Complaints had been made by former employees to their supervisors, but no action was ever taken to remedy these problems. 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.
After she fell, the resident could have been at the bottom of the stairwell for an hour before she was found. There was evidence that she drowned in her own blood. Investigations by the police and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration revealed that the resident had been seen twice earlier that day trying to get through that same door. Actually a maintenance worker, not the nursing staff, found her at the bottom of the staircase. After this death, the facility spent $5,000 to install magnet locks on all of the doors. This was a simple fix that could have saved a life if it had been done sooner.
The Defendant in this case was Trans Health Management, Inc., which was part of a large conglomerate comprising a Chicago private equity firm, New York investor magnates, and various financiers. Through various mergers and acquisitions, the company grew from 23 homes in two states in 1999 to having more than 200 facilities in 20 states by 2003 – making it one of the largest private nursing home chains in the United States. Once this lawsuit and a number of other lawsuits around the country were filed against the Defendant Trans Health Management, Inc., the company was stripped of its assets in an effort to avoid responsibility.
Bennie Lazzara Jr., Isaac Ruiz-Carus, and Joseph Ficarrotta, lawyers with Wilkes & McHugh, P.A. in Tampa, represented Mrs. Nunziata’s family in the case. They did a good job in this and got a very good result for their client.
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