Jury Slaps Nursing Home With Record Verdict

A federal jury has ordered a Texas nursing home owner to pay $312.8 million for neglecting a former resident. Horizon/CMS, which formerly owned Heritage Western Hills nursing home, was ordered to pay the estate of Wyvonne Fuqua $2.8 million in actual damages and $310 million in punitive damages. The judgment is reported to be the largest nursing home verdict ever.

Ms. Fuqua spent two and a half years at Heritage before being moved to a medical center, where she died two months later at age 76. Attorneys for her estate said that when she left the nursing home, Ms. Fuqua had 16 bedsores, some of which were so severe that they exposed her bones. She was also malnourished, dehydrated, and her joints had stiffened from lack of movement.

"We weren't really surprised by the verdict because the conduct of the nursing home was so outrageous," lead attorney H. Dustin Fillmore III told Lawyers Weekly. "Any moral person would react the way the jurors reacted."

Understaffing at the nursing home was largely to blame for the neglect of Ms. Fuqua, Mr. Fillmore said. "They did it purposefully in order to maximize profits," he said. "Horizon was warned by its employees, warned by the Texas Department of Human Services and warned by family members that the understaffing would hurt these patients. Yet they continued to run the home in an understaffed condition."

The attorney for Horizon/CMS, R. Brent Cooper, said his client planned to appeal, citing the judge's decision not to allow Horizon to mount a defense as punishment for its delays in turning over required documents. Mr. Fillmore said he and his co-counsels anticipated discovery abuse, which is why they chose to dismiss the case from state court and file it in federal court. They believed that a federal judge would be more willing to throw the book at a plaintiff who abused the discovery process.

Four years ago, a jury ordered Horizon/CMS to pay $97 million to the family of another resident of the same home. That verdict was later reduced to $11 million. Horizon/CMS sold all of its 130 nursing homes when it became a subsidiary of HealthSouth.