DECEMBER 15, 1997 VOLUME 5, NUMBER 24
Texan Ruth Waites was 84 when she died in 1994. She had spent most of the last year of her life in the Borger Health Care Center in the small town of Borger, about fifty miles from Amarillo, Texas. At the time, the Borger Health Care Center was owned by Beverly Enterprises, Inc., of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
A month before her death, Ms. Waites was sent from the nursing home to a local hospital, suffering from dehydration. She was returned to the nursing home for 19 days before her death. Her immediate cause of death was an infection, related to serious bedsores. One bedsore, on her tailbone, was the size of a grapefruit, and reached to the bone.
After her death, Ms. Waites' surviving relatives brought suit against Beverly Enterprises. They alleged that the company was negligent in caring for Ms. Waites. They also alleged fraud, arguing that Beverly Enterprises had concealed conditions at Borger Health Care Center.
Beverly Enterprises claimed that it was not responsible for Ms. Waites' deteriorating condition. According to the company, Ms. Waites' bedsores developed during her hospitalization, and were being managed by the nursing home when she died.
After a two-and-a-half-week trial a Rusk County jury decided that Beverly Enterprises was liable. The jury found that Ms. Waites' relatives had suffered $13 million in actual damages, and that Beverly Enterprises should pay an additional $50 million in punitive damages. Based on Texas law, the judge reduced the damage award to a total of $54.6 million.
One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, David Marks from Houston, explained the jury's award as a strong message to "an arrogant company." He indicated that the jury "found deliberate fraud in the company's concealing the fact that they were understaffed, had an unqualified staff and an epidemic of dehydration, pressure sores and infections."
Meanwhile, Beverly Enterprises' lawyer, Deanna Smith (also from Houston) insisted that the jury award was baseless, and promised an appeal. She insisted that "there is not a legal basis for a good portion of the judgment, and, factually, a good portion of the judgment is not supported by the evidence."
Ms. Waites' niece, 83-year-old Julia Bird Williams, was one of the plaintiffs. Ms. Williams indicated that she intended to donate a large part of her award to the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, a Washington, D.C., non-profit organization. She said she became familiar with NCCNHR's work through their books, including one she picked up after her aunt's death. Among other publications, NCCNHR is responsible for preparing and distributing "Nursing Homes: Getting Good Care There," a leading national resource on nursing home care. The publication can also be ordered from American Source Books/Impact Publishers at (800) 246-7228.
In addition to donating some of the proceeds to NCCNHR, Ms. Williams indicated that she hopes to help the small church she attends. Ms. Waites taught Sunday School at the church for over fifty years. The church "was very important to my aunt," she said.
Ms. Williams summed up her view of the litigation by claiming that "America is the only country I know of that pays people to mistreat old people. So far, I've been lucky enough that it hasn't happened to me. I'm hoping that this is a wake-up call for a lot of people."
Ironically for Beverly Enterprises, it had sold the Borger nursing home about a month after Ms. Waites' death. The company still owns about 570 nursing homes and other health care facilities, including three nursing homes in Arizona. La Colina Health Care Center in Tucson, and Chandler Health Care Center and Shadow Mountain Health Care Center in the Phoenix area are Beverly Enterprises facilities.