A nursing home may be held directly liable under a theory of corporate negligence, the state Supreme Court has ruled, providing clarity to trial courts on an issue that has been muddied since the justices first adopted the doctrine for hospitals more than two decades ago.
The unanimous six-justice court decided the matter of Scampone v. Highland Park Care Center not under the guidance of the high court's seminal case that extended corporate negligence to hospitals, but rather under its own elucidation of a defendant's "duty of care" to a plaintiff.
In a 44-page opinion, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said a court may find a nursing home directly liable if it breaches a duty of care. In assessing that duty, as the court explained in the 2000 decision Althaus v. Cohen, courts must weigh five factors: the relationship between the parties, the social utility of the actor's conduct, the nature of risk and foreseeability of harm, the consequences of imposing a duty upon an actor and the overall public interest in the proposed solution.
The court declined to endorse a theory advanced by defendant health care organizations, which argued the corporate negligence doctrine should remain restricted to hospitals, HMOs and medical professional corporations. Accordingly, the defendants urged the court to limit the theory of corporate negligence to such "comprehensive health centers."
The state Superior Court had also decided the case in favor of the plaintiff estate, but did so along the lines of the seminal corporate negligence case of Thompson v. Nason Hospital; the unanimous panel ruled that nursing homes were similar to hospitals and HMOs in that they provide "comprehensive and continual physical care" for patients. They are not like physicians' outpatient offices, which are not susceptible to corporate liability claims, the panel said.
But the Supreme Court said the defendants' argument was too narrow for the issue at hand. Castille noted that lower courts have long tried to apply Thompson to cases similar to the instant matter over the years, but the courts have been encumbered by an overemphasis on "the role of a comprehensive health center."
"This inquiry makes too much of the facts in Thompson and is of limited use in developing a principled analysis of relevant considerations and lacks the potential to serve as the governing principle upon which to recognize a legal duty or obligation with respect to other entities in the health care field," Castille said. "The proper inquiry is instead broader, under both Thompson and general, settled principles governing the legal recognition of a duty of care."
While the court declined to endorse the defendants' theory, the November 21 decision isn't a total loss for Highland Park Care Center, the nursing home, or Grane Healthcare Co., Highland Park's management services provider.
Making clear more than once that the high court would not assume the role of factfinder, Castille and his fellow justices kicked the case back to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, where a judge will decide if either defendant, or both defendants, owed a duty of care to Madeline Scampone, a former patient who died of a heart attack in 2004. After that, another trial may ensue.
The case has since been brought by Richard Scampone, Madeline Scampone's son, who has argued his mother's death was a result of substandard care from the nursing home.