Recent Court Cases

MARCH 20, 1995 VOLUME 2, NUMBER 37

Once again, recent court decisions from around the country might be of interest to those working with elderly:

Admissions of Ward Used in Guardianship Trial

Susan T. was taken to a Lake County, California, psychiatric facility after she was found in her home living without heat, electricity or water and surrounded by human and animal wastes. At the facility, a mental health worker took pictures of Susan and interviewed her.

At a subsequent trial on whether Susan T. required the appointment of a guardian, her attorney objected to the use of the photos and testimony from the mental health worker. The basis for the objection was that the information was collected by state officials without first warning Susan of her rights to be represented by counsel and to refuse to answer questions. In other words, her lawyer argued that Susan T. was entitled to the same type of protection afforded to criminal defendants under the so-called “Miranda” rule.

The California Supreme Court ruled that the Miranda rule does not apply to guardianship proceedings. In doing so, the Court considered the deterrent effect the rule might have (to make it less likely that mental health workers would violate the civil rights of prospective patients) and the social value of permitting the testimony. The Court also noted that guardianship proceedings are civil in nature (even though the patient may be deprived of liberty as in a criminal case), and that the Miranda principle ordinarily does not apply in civil actions. Conservatorship of the Person and Estate of Susan T., Cal. Supreme Ct. No. S035032, Dec. 8, 1994.

No Punitive Damages Against County Nursing Home

The DeKalb County Nursing Home in Illinois is owned and operated by DeKalb County itself. In Illinois, a special statute permits an award of three times the actual damages to those injured as a result of negligence in nursing home settings.

When Ethel Paulson was injured in DeKalb County Nursing Home, a jury awarded her damages of $20,000. The trial judge invoked the treble damages statute and awarded a total of $60,000 against the County.

Illinois’ Court of Appeals reversed the treble damages award. Since the nursing home was a public entity, it was immune from punitive damages, ruled the Court of Appeals. The treble damages award was tantamount to punitive damages, and therefore was overturned. Paulson v. County of DeKalb, Ill. App. Ct. No. 2-93-1400, December 8, 1994).

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