MARCH 18, 1996 VOLUME 3, NUMBER 38
Roland Monicken resided in the St. Croix Health Care Center, a Wisconsin nursing home. Mr. Monicken suffered from dementia, and had a history of combativeness and disorientation. On one occasion, head nurse Sheri Gould found Mr. Monicken in another resident’s room and attempted to return him to his own room. Unfortunately, Mr. Monicken resisted Ms. Gould’s attempts and apparently struck her or pushed her down, injuring her.
Ms. Gould brought an action against Mr. Monicken and his wife. Mr. Monicken’s homeowner’s insurance company defended, arguing that he could not be held liable for his actions because of his dementia.
After the evidence had been presented to the jury, the trial judge instructed jurors to ignore Mr. Monicken’s mental condition in determining whether he should be held liable. The jury subsequently awarded Ms. Gould damages against Mr. Monicken’s insurance company.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court disagreed with the trial judge’s view of the law. The Supreme Court noted the long-standing rule used by the trial court; since at least 1616, most English (and, subsequently, American) courts have agreed that mental disability is no defense to a personal injury action. The reasons for holding disabled individuals liable for their actions include:
- As between two “innocent” persons (the mentally disabled person and the injured person), it is better to charge damages to the person who caused the injury.
- If disabled individuals are held liable, family members will exercise more caution to restrain them and monitor their behavior.
- Permitting defendants in civil actions to, in effect, plead “insanity” would encourage them to feign illness to avoid liability.
Despite three centuries of precedent, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that the rationale for imposing liability did not apply to Mr. Monicken. Analyzing the three principles as they applied to Ms. Gould’s injury, the Court noted:
- Ms. Gould was not the kind of “innocent” victim imagined by previous cases. She worked in a facility devoted to treating disabled individuals, and was well aware of the risks associated with the care, specifically, of Mr. Monicken. Placing the duty of care on Mr. Monicken was, therefore, too great a burden, since his disability was the precise reason for his institutionalization.
- Mr. Monicken’s family could not be expected to do more to contain his violence. In fact, placement in Ms. Gould’s care was precisely the sort of precautionary measure they should be encouraged to take.
- While the Court was concerned about malingering defendants, it seems unlikely that Mr. Monicken would be willing to pretend dementia for years in order to avoid civil liability.
As a result, Ms. Gould’s lawsuit against Mr. Monicken was thrown out. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception to the rules governing liability, but one which could have widespread effect in nursing and similar facilities. Gould v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co., January 30, 1996.
While Arizona has not expressly adopted the new Wisconsin approach to liability in nursing homes, the logic seems compelling. A similar result might well be expected if and when Arizona’s courts are asked to address the question.