Jury Awards On Rise For Elderly Victims of Poor Nursing Care


When Walter Spilman entered the Eastbrooke Health Care Center in Brooksville, Florida, he was terminally ill. At 88, he had been diagnosed as suffering for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, and he was not expected to live long.

After Mr. Spilman’s death, his estate brought an action against Eastbrooke for the mental anguish he suffered, claiming he was denied the kind of mattress and bedding he required to prevent bedsores, that he was not turned frequently enough, and that he was made to lie in his own urine and feces. Even the attorney for the nursing home conceded at trial that it had violated some of Mr. Spilman’s rights and some verdict should be entered in favor of the estate. One of the points conceded by the nursing home: Mr. Spilman had not been fed for one six-day period.

After a two-day trial featuring photographic evidence of Mr. Spilman’s condition, the Florida jury awarded over $2½ million in damages to his estate. Some jurors indicated they would have gone as high as $10 million.

Previous Elder Law Issues have reported on a trend toward larger jury awards for older plaintiffs in more traditional personal injury cases. Mr. Spilman’s case and a handful of others reflect another recent trend: jury verdicts for negligent nursing care are also on the rise. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal focused on the trend.

According to independent jury research, the mean award in nursing home negligence cases has doubled in the past seven years, going from less than $250,000 to over $500,000. Experts in the field ascribe the increase to a growing public perception that moving to a nursing home need not consign one to oblivion, and that it is both important and possible to die with dignity, regardless of the setting.

One reason cited for the increase in nursing home negligence cases: recent regulatory changes requiring careful documentation of all nursing home problems and regular written surveys. That makes it easy to demonstrate a pattern of abuse or neglect, if one exists. It also makes it easy to demonstrate when a nursing home has failed to take steps to remedy problems with the quality of care in other cases.

In a Cumberland County, North Carolina, case, state surveys were instrumental in securing a settlement of $850,000 for the estate of Easter West. Attorneys for the estate argued that they should be able to use the state evidence of over 200 instances of failure to follow physician’s orders, improper medication administration and failure to assess patients’ needs.

The increase in jury verdicts surprises some who indicate that decline and death are the usual result of institutionalization. The attorney for one nursing home told the Journal: “Guess what? People don’t go to nursing homes to get better and check out. They go there to die.”

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