A Lowndes County jury awarded $7.6 million to the son and estate of an elderly man who died from complications of a bowel obstruction he suffered at a Valdosta nursing home.
Lead plaintiffs attorney Kenneth Connor said that, in addition to any potential appeal or other defense challenge, there will likely be another wrangle because the jury found the nursing home liable for both ordinary and professional negligence and apportioned only 20 percent of the fault to the facility, with the rest divided among four nonparties.
“The judge specifically asked if [the defense] were asserting a right to allocate fault on the ordinary negligence claim, and they said ‘no.’ Since the jury found against them on both claims, our position is that they’re liable for the entire award,” said Connor, who handled the case with son and law partner Caleb Connor of Connor & Connor, which has offices in Augusta and Aiken, South Carolina.
Lowndes County Health Services, a division of the PruittHealth chain of nursing homes that operates Heritage Healthcare at Holly Hill, is represented by Huff Powell & Bailey partner Brian Mathis and associate Trevor Newberry, and Robert Anspach and David Rich of Anspach Meeks Ellenberger in Toledo, Ohio. In an email, Mathis said they will appeal the verdict.
Connor said a key issue was a lack of appropriate medical staff at the facility the night 71-year-old Bobby Copeland began vomiting and complaining of a distended abdomen in October 2012.
When Copeland’s symptoms became apparent, the only medical staffer was a licensed practical nurse, who called an off-site physician assistant to ask whether to send Copeland to an emergency room less than a half-mile away.
The physician assistant said no and ordered some tests, but it was only the next day that Copeland was taken to the hospital, where he died hours later.
Had a registered nurse been available, she could have performed a skilled assessment of his symptoms and mental faculties, Connor said.
“The problem is that the only nurse on duty was an LPN who’s not qualified to do a nursing assessment, and she doesn’t put it all together that he’s continuing this downhill slide,” Connor said.
The nursing home had a policy of only using LPNs at night, he said.
“People don’t get sick on a schedule, but they elected to staff only LPNs on the night shift to save a few bucks instead of paying for registered nurses,”Connor said.
According to Connor and court filings, Copeland had been a patient at Holly Hill since 2001 after being paralyzed in a fall.
“There were never any prior complaints about his care,” Connor said.
After Copeland became ill and the LPN called the physician assistant, he instructed the nurse to call back, but that never happened, even though Copeland was moaning and complaining of pain, Connor said.
The defense claimed Copeland told the LPN he didn’t want to go to the hospital, Connor said.
“That’s when the issue of his mental faculties came up,” Connor said. “When somebody declines treatment, they’re supposed to do an assessment—that’s their policy.”
By the time Copeland got to the emergency room at South Georgia Medical Center, he was showing signs of having aspirated fecal matter in his lungs, and “the ER doctors said his stomach was so distended you could bounce a basketball off of it,” Connor said.
Copeland died about 12 hours after arriving at the hospital.
In 2014, Copeland’s son and estate administrator sued the nursing home, its medical director and the physician assistant in Lowndes County State Court.
As the litigation progressed, the doctor and PA settled confidentially, leaving only the nursing home as a party.
Connor said he offered to settle for $600,000 or $650,000 under Georgia’s offer of settlement statute, by which a party that declines a settlement offer and then loses at trial by at least 25 percent more than the rejected offer may have to pay the winning party’s attorney fees from the date of the offer.
A mediation was “fruitless,” said Connor. “They offered $300,000. We said we have room to maneuver, but they weren’t budging.”
Trial commenced Jan. 16 before Judge Ellen Golden.
The plaintiffs argued that Copeland’s delayed treatment violated the standard of care and that the nursing home had committed ordinary negligence by not having adequately skilled medical personnel available, Connor said.
Connor said the defense pointed to the physician assistant and Copeland’s alleged unwillingness to go to the ER as the reason for his death.
“They said, ‘Look, we called the PA. He said don’t send him—end of story,’” Connor said.
He said key plaintiffs experts included Marietta internest Joseph Micca and gerontological nursing expert Kathleen Hill-O’Neil. The defense relied on pulmonologist Amber DeGryse with Northside Hospital and Macon family medicine specialist Harry Strothers.
During closing arguments, Connor said he suggested a “range” of damages and that the jury settled on $750,000 a year for the 10 years Copeland could have been expected to live.
The jury took about three hours to award $7.5 million for the value of Copeland’s life and $121,200 to his estate for pain and suffering, medical and funeral expenses.
The panel allocated 20 percent of the liability to the nursing home, 35 percent apiece to the physician assistant and medical director, and 5 percent apiece to South Georgia Medical Center and the ER doctor.
Connor said he spoke to two jurors afterward.
“They spoke very favorably of our experts, and their experience and demeanor,” he said, and were put off by the defense’s attacks on their credibility.