NOVEMBER 29, 1999 VOLUME 7, NUMBER 22
Homer Cone suffered from dementia. As a result, he was placed in a nursing home in Missouri, run by national nursing home chain Beverly Enterprises. Apparently because of his confusion, he wandered out of the nursing home one winter day, got lost and died of hypothermia.
Mr. Cone’s daughter, Barbara C. Ragle, brought an action in Missouri Federal Court against Beverly Enterprises for its alleged negligence in allowing Mr. Cone’s death. The jury in the case found that Beverly Enterprises had been negligent, but that the damages for Mr. Cone’s wrongful death should be set at $100. Furthermore, ruled the jury, Mr. Cone was himself at fault, and his failure was responsible for 99% of the loss (his own death). Consequently, the jury awarded Ms. Ragle $1 for her father’s death.
Although the notion of finding a nursing home resident liable for his own confusion may at first seem completely out of line, there was evidence of Mr. Cone’s contribution to his own dilemma. Mr. Cone and his wife Ethel (who lived with him in the nursing home) deliberately removed a security bracelet that was designed to alert nursing staff of any attempt to leave the facility.
Ms. Ragle appealed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the amount of the judgment was grossly inadequate. She also argued that the jury should not have been permitted to find her father partially at fault for his own death.
Ms. Ragle first argued that the total damages of $100 were woefully inadequate. Her argument was based on the testimony of the investigating police officer responding to the emergency call on the morning of Mr. Cone’s death, coupled with the language of Mr. Cone’s death certificate (which starkly described his death as resulting from the fact that he "wandered out of nursing home in cold weather"). That, ruled the judges, was insufficient to show that the jury’s small damage award was "against the weight of the evidence"—the standard which Ms. Ragle was required to meet before a new trial could be ordered on damages.
Ms. Ragle also asked the judges to rule that a demented nursing home patient could never be responsible for his own injury or death, since he could not understand the nature or consequence of his acts. The court disagreed, however, observing that "mental infirmities exist in infinite degrees and with infinite levels and varieties of behavioral impairment." Because of the variability of a demented patient’s level of understanding, the question of comparative fault should be left to the jury’s decision, and the Court of Appeals let stand the $1 award of damages against Beverly Enterprises. Ragle v. Beverly Enterprises, November 5, 1999.