ELDER ABUSE DEFENSE VERDICT —
RESIDENTIAL CARE FACILITY FOUND NOT LIABLE
FOR SPINAL FRACTURES AND BRAIN INJURIES
An Orange County, California jury deliberated for less than six hours before finding that Sunflower Gardens, a residential care facility specializing in caring for elderly dementia patients, was not responsible for cervical spine fractures and a serious brain injury suffered by a resident. The plaintiff, the Estate of Virginia D. Curtis, had sued the facility for damages suffered in an accident that occurred in June of 2012. The trial, which lasted nearly six weeks, was highlighted by the testimony of numerous medical experts who were called on behalf of the plaintiff and the defendants.
At the time of the accident, the resident, Virginia D. Curtis, was 92 years old. She had been admitted to Sunflower Gardens with a diagnosis of senile dementia. A few days after admission, Mrs. Curtis sustained gravely serious head and spinal injuries when she was assaulted by another resident. Caregivers, who were just feet away, ran to the scene but were unable to prevent a fall. Mrs. Curtis was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with two intracranial brain bleeds and multiple fractures of the cervical spine. Although the treating neurosurgeon expected her to recover without surgical intervention, Mrs. Curtis’ family decided to withdraw all medical interventions, discontinue regular medications, and only provide comfort care. Mrs. Curtis died five days later. The defendants claimed that they were not responsible for this tragic and unpreventable accident.
Plaintiff’s counsel accused the administrator of Sunflower Gardens and her employer, Meridian Senior Living, LLC, of recklessly and maliciously abusing and neglecting Mrs. Curtis by failing to supervise the residents, admitting a resident with a violent history of agitation and aggression, and allowing him to freely move about the facility and interact with other residents, including Mrs. Curtis. Plaintiff presented evidence that the resident responsible for the assault had prior locked psychiatric hospitalizations due to violent aggressive behavior including an attack on a caregiver. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigated the assault and death as a homicide.
Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the facility administrator and the corporate defendants placed their financial and occupancy goals ahead of the care and safety of the residents. Plaintiff sought $6 million in compensation, including attorney’s fees and an award of punitive damages to punish the defendants.
Defense counsel, Spencer H. Jenkins and Thomas E. Beach (Beach Cowdrey Owen, LLP) argued that Mrs. Curtis’ injuries, while very tragic, were unpredictable and unpreventable. They presented evidence and testimony from multiple treating physicians and experts in the field of geriatric psychiatry who agreed that the resident that pushed Mrs. Curtis was appropriate for Sunflower Gardens and did not present a known danger to other residents. The experts agreed that residential care facilities are mandated to provide care in the least restrictive environment and must allow residents to socialize with other residents and move freely about the facility and without physical or chemical restraints.