SEPTEMBER 6, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 28
The question addressed in a ruling last month by the Arizona Court of Appeals seems provocative. In a lawsuit based on the Arizona law prohibiting abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable adults, does the very life of the abused senior have any intrinsic value? The Court's answer: perhaps, but the lawsuit can not recover damages for the loss of that life.
Mary Winn died about a month after being admitted to Plaza Healthcare, a Scottsdale, Arizona, nursing home, in 1999. Four years later her husband George Winn filed a lawsuit against Plaza, alleging that it had violated Mrs. Winn's rights under Arizona's Adult Protective Services Act. Under the APSA, a vulnerable adult who has been abused, neglected or exploited may recover damages suffered as a result of that abuse, neglect or exploitation. Mr. Winn argued (on behalf of his wife's estate) that he should be able to recover on behalf of his late wife, and that she would have been entitled to actual damages for the loss of her life, as well as punitive damages.
Not so, argued the nursing home. Mrs. Winn obviously could never have collected damages for her own death, and her estate's recovery was limited to what she could have recovered. In fact, the estate's possible recovery was less than her damages, since any claim for pain and suffering she experienced at the end of her life ended with her death. With no actual damages to recover, her estate could not seek punitive damages.
Mrs. Winn's estate argued that her life had some "intrinsic" value, and that it should be recoverable. The estate conceded that she was elderly and ill when she arrived at Plaza Healthcare, and that she could not be expected to earn a salary given her age and condition. But, insisted the estate's lawyers, a human life has some inherent value.
The trial court agreed with the nursing home, and limited the estate's proof to just actual damages. After an informal arbitration proceeding (the estate conceded that the remaining damages were less than $50,000, and therefore subject to mandatory arbitration rules) a judgment against was entered in favor of Plaza Healthcare.
The Arizona Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court's ruling and agreed. There is no cause of action under the vulnerable adults statute, ruled the appellate judges, for the "intrinsic or inherent value" of a deceased claimant's life. Mrs. Winn's estate -- and her husband -- recovers nothing from Plaza Healthcare. Estate of Winn v. Plaza Healthcare, Inc., August 10, 2010.
To be fair, the appellate court did not rule that there is no value to the life of an elderly, disabled and vulnerable senior. All the ruling says is that there is no right to recover under the Arizona Adult Protective Services Act for the loss of life itself.
Does that mean that Mr. Winn had no claim for his wife's alleged mistreatment? Not necessarily -- he might have been able to file his lawsuit on his own behalf if he had acted more quickly. By the time he filed it had been more than four years since his wife's death -- too late for any wrongful death action but not too late for a viable lawsuit under the Adult Protective Services Act, which had a much longer statute of limitations.
There is another interesting footnote to the Winn case. Last month's decision from the Court of Appeals is not the first time Mrs. Winn and her estate have been before Arizona appellate judges. In fact, her case had been appealed twice before -- once in 2006/2007, and again a year later. The first trip through the appellate system involved the trial judge's dismissal -- ultimately reversed by the Arizona Supreme Court -- on the basis that a probate proceeding filed more than two years after the decedent's death did not permit filing of a lawsuit in the estate's name. A year later the Court of Appeals dismissed an attempted appeal from the trial judge's initial refusal to allow any recovery for the inherent value of Mrs. Winn's life. That appeal had to wait for final resolution of the entire lawsuit, which was accomplished before the current (and probably final) appeal.