by Max Brantley
A Faulkner County jury returned a unanimous verdict last night that the Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center had been negligent in treatment of Martha Bull, 76, who died at the nursing home April 7, 2008 after staff failed to act on a doctor's orders to get her transferred to a hospital emergency room for treatment of severe abdominal pain.
It set damages for pain, suffering and mental anguish at $5.2 million, according to Bull's attorney, Thomas Buchanan of Little Rock. He said representatives of the nursing home had told him a Faulkner jury would never award more than $500,000 in the case. Circuit Judge Mike Maggio presided.
Buchanan expects an appeal. And even an unsuccessful appeal will likely be only the beginning of a long road toward collection, if any. The nursing home is controlled by Central Arkansas Nursing Centers, a private company headed by Michael Morton of Fort Smith. Buchanan said the individual nursing homes are organized as freestanding limited liability corporations, with licenses separate from physical property and small liability insurance policies through a self-insurance-style program based in Bermuda. It is not unusual in Arkansas for nursing homes to be set up this way and to contend they've spent all their liability coverage in legal defense — $100,000 in this case. Buchanan, who said he faced six defense lawyers, said he'd attempt to "pierce the corporate veil" to show a relationship between the nursing home and other parts of the company with assets to collect the judgment.
Lyn Pruitt, who led the defense team, said she couldn't comment on the outcome because of a judge's directive on a pending post-trial issue.
Buchanan said the jury found the nursing home guilty of negligence, medical malpractice and violation of resident's rights, but it did not specifically find that the nursing home caused Bull's death. New legislation from the 2013 legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, will make it impossible to sue a nursing home except for medical reasons, not for multiple causes of action. In this case, Buchanan said, the jury awarded damages only under one area for pain, suffering and mental anguish, it wasn't multiplied by the multiple types of culpability.
The case was brought by Bull's two daughters, Rose Perkins and Rhonda Coppak, on behalf of her estate and the beneficiaries.
Buchanan's account of the facts: Bull was admitted to the nursing home March 28, 2008 for 30 days of rehabilitation after a stroke. During the night of April 6, 2008 she said she was in severe pain, sweating and unable to have a bowel movement. Nothing was done. The next shift, she continued to complain. A physician was called at 2:20 p.m. April 7. He sent an order to have her transferred to an emergency room for evaulation in light of a history of stroke and abdominal abscess. The director of nursing received the fax at 3:34 p.m., but was leaving for the day. The nursing director sent it by fax to a new fax in a closet of the nursing home wing in which Bull lived. No one saw it. Bull wasn't sent to the emergency room. She screamed throughout the afternoon, so loudly that residents on other halls complained. She was found dead at 10:20 p.m. April 7. The faxed physician's order was found the next day.
No autopsy was performed. Buchanan said that the nursing home, after fighting the case without relent since it was filed four years ago, admitted in the early stage of the trial, which began May 7, that a mistake was made. But it presented testimony that it wasn't clear what caused Bull's death.
Buchanan said that the nursing home admission of a mistake came only after the trial began. If sincere, it should have done so long ago, expressed regret and demonstrated sincerity by trying to make things right, he said.
Meanwhile, in the legislature and perhaps at the ballot in 2014, the business community will continues to endeavor to make it harder than it already is to collect for pain and suffering of elderly people who are victims of nursing home negligence.