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A wrongful-death suit will proceed against one of the nation’s largest private elder care companies, Life Care Centers of America, because it failed to win dismissal of the action in Gwinnett County, Ga. Georgia Court Judge Joseph C. Iannazzone found that Life Care Centers’ motion to dismiss or for partial summary judgment was not proper. There are genuine issues of fact about whether staff at the Life Care Center of Lawrenceville lied to Ethel Eck and her family when describing the quality of care the center could provide, the judge wrote. Eck’s daughter Doris Jodice and her granddaughter Erika Kern are accusing the center of wrongful death and violating the Fair Business Practices Act and the Deceptive Trade Practices Toward the Elderly Act. The company lost its motion for summary judgment on the last two charges, as Iannazzone noted that omissions as well as outright lies can serve as the basis of a claim in Jodice v. Life Care Centers of America. “The deposition of Mrs. Jodice sets forth a number of omissions that raise issues of material fact for a jury to decide,” Iannazzone wrote. Life Care Centers is facing a flood of litigation in Georgia, including suits in federal court and in DeKalb County State Court. Another case in Fulton County State Court settled in 2002. All of the suits accuse the company of promising but failing to provide services to ill, elderly residents. The same lawyers have been involved in all the cases. Bird & Mabrey’s William Q. Bird and John E. Floyd of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore are representing the plaintiffs. Richard H. Sinkfield of Rogers & Hardin and Darryl Love of Love Willingham Peters Gilleland & Monyak represent Life Care, its staff and affiliates. None will discuss the cases. Lawyers for each side have done their best to keep the cases quiet. The records are filled with sealed documents and motions for protective orders. Life Care Centers of America, based in Cleveland, Tenn., owns or manages more than 240 elder care centers in 28 states. It employs approximately 30,000 people and recorded $1.46 billion in revenue in 2003. In Georgia, the company’s nursing care facilities include the Life Care Center of Lawrenceville, the Life Care Center of Gwinnett and Camellia Gardens of Life Care, in Thomasville. The Lawrenceville center has been in operation since 1998. IT’S WHAT THEY DIDN’T SAY In the Gwinnett suit, Jodice and her daughter Kern accuse Life Care of misleading them about the Lawrenceville center’s capacity to care for Eck, Jodice’s mother. Jodice and Kern are co-administrators of Eck’s estate. According to the suit, Eck died in September 2001 at age 96 after suffering a series of falls at the Lawrenceville center. Before Eck was admitted to the center, she lived at Gwinnett Christian Terrace, where she was active enough to help other residents with their shopping and daily errands. However, in May 2001, Eck was hospitalized for chest pains. Medical staff told her that she needed rehabilitative care and suggested a list of possible elder care centers. Eck had visited the Lawrenceville center before, liked it and asked if she could go there. Before she was admitted, however, Jodice asked for a tour of the center. Though staff members wouldn’t allow her to see a typical resident’s room, they took her on a tour of the center’s common facilities. According to the suit, Life Care Center of Lawrenceville admissions coordinator Nancy Hicks assured Jodice that her mother would receive 24-hour care, that the center was fully staffed with qualified people and that the level of care was excellent. The center’s brochures, Jodice claims, said much the same thing. She allowed her mother to enter the center on May 25, 2001. However, Floyd’s co-counsel Corey F. Hirokawa wrote that Jodice didn’t receive a full assessment of the center’s capabilities. “At no time did any manager or staff member at LCCL � inform Ms. Jodice that, prior to her mother’s admission to LCCL, several residents had died at the facility due to inadequate care, the Georgia Department of Human Resources had made a finding that residents at LCCL were in ‘immediate jeopardy,’ and LCCA’s own corporate nurses had determined that residents at LCCL were in jeopardy and that basic nursing care at LCCL was ‘inconsistent at best,’” Hirokawa wrote. ‘STAFF WOULD IGNORE HER’ Less than a month after her admission, on June 13, 2001, Eck had her first fall. She had called for staff assistance in getting to the bathroom. When nobody came to help her, she attempted to go on her own. “The LCCL staff found Mrs. Eck next to her bed, lying in a pool of her own blood,” Hirokawa wrote. Eck fell again, under similar circumstances, less than a month later. And Jodice claims that her mother used to complain about inattention from the staff. “Mrs. Eck often commented to her daughter, Ms. Jodice, that the staff would ignore her call light, ‘laughing and talking’ at the nearby nurses’ station instead of responding,” he wrote. Jodice complained to the Lawrenceville center’s executive director Loretto Truett, also a defendant in the case, who promised her the center would improve, according to the complaint. But Eck’s third fall came Aug. 12, 2001. Again, she had summoned staff for aid in reaching the bathroom. This time, according to the complaint, a staff member arrived, told Eck to use the diaper she was wearing and walked away. Eck fell for the fourth and last time Sept. 2, 2001, after which she went to Emory Eastside Medical Center for treatment for a broken hip. The hospital staff determined that Eck was unlikely to survive any surgery on her hip, so they placed her in traction instead. “Three weeks after breaking her hip and being immobilized, Mrs. Eck died in severe pain and distress,” the plaintiffs wrote. The defense maintains that the centers had nothing to do with Eck’s deterioration and death, and that it provided a level of care consistent with state requirements. Life Care lawyers also maintain that there is no evidence that Truett misled the plaintiffs or that the plaintiffs relied on what Truett said in deciding to place Eck in the Lawrenceville center. Truett never had spoken with either plaintiff before Eck was admitted. Also, the defense argued in its motion to dismiss, or for summary judgment, that the Fair Business Practices Act and the Deceptive Trade Practices Toward the Elderly Act do not allow a claim against a nursing home for unfair or deceptive marketing practices. Iannazzone disagreed, however, about whether the plaintiffs could bring their claim. The judge noted that Jodice raised material issues of fact for a jury. Life Care’s Truett and Hicks, the plaintiffs noted in their briefs, have yet to be deposed. LIFE CARE STRUGGLING WITH SUITS The cases have not been going well for Life Care. In the DeKalb case, State Court Judge Wayne M. Purdom fined the defense $1,000 for filing unjustified motions to protect company officers and documents from discovery. In that case, Perry G. Patterson has accused the Lawrenceville center of starving to death his mother Flora during her 10-day stay in Patterson v. Life Care Centers of America. The case is in the first stages of discovery. In the Fulton case, James T. Miles’ surviving family accused the Lawrenceville center of failing to treat his hypoglycemia during his stay. The case settled after Chief State Court Judge Albert L. Thompson struck the defense’s answer and blasted the company for “willful disobedience, bad faith and a conscious disregard for the Court’s orders” in Miles v. Life Care Centers of America.

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