An Allegheny County trial judge granted a nonsuit to Grane on the estate's claim of "corporate negligence" at the close of the plaintiff's case, but allowed the same against Highland Park to reach the jury. The judge further ruled there was not sufficient evidence to submit a question of punitive damages to a jury, an issue upon which the high court hardly elaborated and did not review; the court said in a footnote that if the trial judge granted a new trial, the Scampone estate could reassert a claim for punitive damages.
Explaining its decision on allowing the corporate negligence claim to go to the jury, the trial court reasoned there was nothing in the Thompson decision (or the decision that expanded the theory to HMOs Shannon v. McNulty or the one expanding it to medical professional corporations Hyrcza v. West Penn Allegheny Health System) that would prohibit a similar theory against a nursing home to proceed. Grane, however, escaped with a compulsory nonsuit after the plaintiff rested.
The "central role" played by the health care entity in the care of a patient was a key factor in determining the viability of a corporate negligence claim in the trial court's analysis, according to Castille.
The Superior Court affirmed the trial court with regard to Highland Park, but reversed the trial court's decision to grant a nonsuit in favor of Grane and remanded the case for a new trial.
The Supreme Court in its analysis also examined whether the health care organizations fit into a categorical exemption, generally, from negligence liability.
The defendants, as the court saw it, had argued it was "onerous and inappropriate" to extend direct liability onto nursing homes and affiliated entities and that nothing in existing law allowed for such a claim.
But the justices rejected the defendants' claim, noting they were "insisting on a categorical exemption from direct liability for negligence," but offered no legal support to the contrary.
Additionally, Castille wrote, the health care organizations did not provide a persuasive argument that the availability of a vicarious liability claim as opposed to one of direct liability was a good substitute for acknowledging a corporation's "direct or non-delegable" duties to a plaintiff. There was no merit in their claim that presenting both a vicarious and direct liability claim to a jury would lead to double recovery.
"To the extent that [the defendants'] arguments are also tantamount to a request that we recognize a form of judicial immunity for nursing home-related entities, we decline the invitation," Castille said,
Madeline Scampone was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection two months before her death, an ailment to which she was susceptible and for which she was "hospitalized repeatedly." She was also diagnosed with dehydration, malnutrition and bed sores less than two weeks before her death.