A state appeals court on Tuesday reinstated a wrongful-death case against a nursing home, finding a facility’s benevolent acts by themselves do not confer charitable immunity.
Determining if an entity is shielded “requires a fact-sensitive inquiry,” focusing on an organization’s funding, charter, daily operations, relationships to other entities and the extent to which it lessens a burden on the government, the Appellate Division said in Hanley v. Collingswood Manor, A-5430-10.
Camden County Superior Court Judge Michele Fox’s decision was lacking in that analysis, the panel said in remanding the case.
In April 2006, Edwin Ellis moved into Collingswood Manor, a nursing home owned by United Methodist Homes of Binghamton, N.Y., which has no affiliation with the Methodist Church.
He fell four times, the last on Jan. 18, 2007, when he suffered a vertebral fracture and was hospitalized until his death at age 81 on Feb. 14, 2007.
The suit claimed that the defendants knew Ellis was at risk of falling but negligently failed to use ordinary care and supervision to provide him with a safe environment.
The defendants asserted the affirmative defense of charitable immunity. In an affidavit, United Methodist Homes Vice President for Operations Eleanor Kinsey-Skroski spoke of the company’s willingness to accept Medicaid-eligible patients and its practice of augmenting Medicaid and other public funds with money from its “fellowship fund,” which comes from charitable donations.
She said patients admitted to Collingswood Manor can expect to stay there the rest of their lives.
Fox, after hearing Kinsey-Skroski’s testimony, found the defendants immunized from liability for simple negligence. The jury then handed up a no-cause verdict on the heightened standards of intentional conduct, reckless and wanton conduct, and gross negligence.
On appeal, Judges Mary Catherine Cuff, Marie Lihotz and Jerome St. John noted that neither Fox’s decision nor the record below disclosed specific information about the defendants’ funding.
Further, although United Methodist Homes stated that its board has directed that indigent people make up 15 percent of its assisted living residents, “the record does not disclose the actual percentage,” the panel said.
“Similarly, the statement that, since 1907, no resident has been asked to leave as a result of inability to pay, is not supported in the record by any data evincing the number of indigent residents, if any, allowed to stay,” the panel said.
A determination on whether charitable immunity should be granted is made on a case-by-case basis and “looks beyond an entity’s benevolent acts,” the panel said.
In addition, the appeals court said, a review of the award of partial summary judgment was hampered by Fox’s failure to explain her reasons for the decision.
The case was remanded to the trial court for development of fact-sensitive findings and legal conclusions.
The plaintiff lawyer, Robert Porter of Bafundo, Porter, Borbi & Clancy in Marlton, did not return a call.
The defendants’ attorney, David Rohde, of Drexel Hill, Pa., said that even if the plaintiffs win a new trial on ordinary negligence, he is confident of prevailing again, since “the difference between gross negligence and negligence is nearly nonexistent.”
Rohde says Ellis may have died from causes unrelated to the fall, such as pneumonia.
“It appears to me they want a more detailed factual analysis,” Rohde says. “I believe it’s there, but I guess we’ll see what Judge Fox has to say.”