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A Florida jury has ordered the owners of a Tampa nursing home to pay $20 million to the estate of an Alzheimer’s patient who died after receiving allegedly substandard care. The jury rejected the plaintiff’s claim that this care brought on the death of Charles McCorkle, but it awarded $3 million in compensatory damages and $17 million in punitives in finding that subsidiaries of the nursing home chain Extendicare Inc. had been negligent and had acted with “reckless disregard” for the needs and rights of patients “by setting a policy of understaffing” in the companies’ homes, said plaintiff’s attorney Bennie Lazzara Jr. of Tampa’s Wilkes & McHugh. Extendicare denied any understaffing at Colonial Care Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., and contended that McCorkle rapidly deteriorated after arriving at Colonial because he was an end-stage Alzheimer’s patient, and that his physical problems were terminal and irreversible before he got there. McCorkle, then 65, was brought to Colonial Care Center in St. Petersburg on June 9, 1997, after he had fallen and hit his head at an assisted-living facility, said Lazzara. He was not expected to stay long but was scheduled to be rehabilitated then returned to assisted living, Lazzara said. However, during his stay at Colonial, McCorkle was neglected and ignored, Lazzara alleged. He was not fed for much of the time, he said, and was left lying in his own feces. By the time McCorkle had been there two months, Lazzara said, he had developed “a gangrenous pressure sore the size of a large orange on his buttocks.” The sore was infected to the bone, said Lazzara. McCorkle was brought to a hospital for surgery on the pressure sore, then brought back to Colonial. He stayed there for several more months as his health continued to deteriorate, Lazzara said. McCorkle died in August 1998, three months after leaving Colonial. McCorkle’s only relative, an elderly aunt, sued Extendicare Health and Extendicare Home, operators of the homes and subsidiaries of Extendicare Inc., charging negligence in McCorkle’s care. McCorkle v. Extendicare Health Facilities Inc., No. 99-00815-CI-011 (Cir. Ct., Pinellas Co., Fla.). “For the first 35 days of his residency at Colonial, the staffing was below minimum standards 80 percent of the time,” Lazzara said. This understaffing led to the substandard treatment, he alleged, “and this understaffing was negligence.” Lazzara said that “[w]e sued the corporation. This was a corporate policy. … [T]hey were putting profits over people.” The plaintiff’s team called as witnesses seven of the Colonial staff members who were working at the time that McCorkle was a resident. These witnesses, he said, “testified that they never had enough time to feed the patients; there was never enough manpower.” Extendicare contended, said Roch Carter, vice president and general counsel of the parent company, that “the facility was not understaffed below state requirements during any time Mr. McCorkle was there.” The defense also noted that the medical examiner had ruled that McCorkle died of Alzheimer’s. On Sept. 26, the St. Petersburg jury awarded $3 million in compensatories, then added $17 million in punitives the following day. “The jury found that the defendants violated his rights, but that they didn’t contribute to his death,” Lazzara said. But, he added, the jury found the Colonial owners responsible for the negligent care that McCorkle received at the nursing home and found that Extendicare’s actions were “willful and wanton.” Extendicare is filing post-trial motions to set aside the verdict. If these fail, the company has vowed to appeal.

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