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Court Rules on Punitive Damages in Nursing Home Neglect Case

On September 14, the Supreme Court of New York (Kings County) in the case of Butler v. Shorefront Jewish Geriatric Center ruled against the plaintiff seeking punitive damages against the Haym Solomon Home for the Aged in the death of his father.

What are Punitive Damages?

Most damages awarded in civil cases are compensatory damages, meaning they are meant to compensate the plaintiff for the injuries suffered. In the case of a personal injury, these include things such as property damage, medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are meant to punish the defendant for especially bad conduct, and to serve as an example to the public that such behavior is not to be condoned. In many cases, punitive damages are not allowed unless specifically authorized by law.

Section 2801-d Civil Action for Nursing Home Neglect

New York Public Health Law 2801-d allows a nursing home resident to sue the nursing home for a deprivation of rights or benefits granted to them by law, regulations, or contract. This law also authorizes punitive damages when the nursing home acts willfully or in reckless disregard of the resident’s lawful rights. The court in the Butler case discussed what it takes to find punitive damages appropriate under 2801-d.

This case involved a 91-year old man who was admitted to the nursing home following a surgical procedure at another facility. He died two weeks later. The man’s son sued the nursing home for failing to follow doctor’s orders and properly treat and care for a foot wound the man had. According to the plaintiff’s expert witness, the lack of care caused the foot to become infected which created a chain of bad events which led to the man’s death. The nursing home’s expert, on the other hand, testified that the man had a number of serious health conditions and was already in the process of dying when he was admitted to the nursing home.

Willful or Reckless Disregard

In deciding whether punitive damages may be in order under 2801-d, the court held that the conduct of the nursing home staff “must have been voluntary and intentional or must have created a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm with a conscious disregard of, or indifference to, that risk.” The court felt that the facts in this case did not show a willful deprivation of a right or benefit, or a reckless disregard of a lawful right or benefit.

Not only did the court find for the nursing home on the issue of punitive damages, but it dismissed the claim entirely. Although New York has a specific law on the books allowing a civil lawsuit for nursing home neglect or abuse, actually recovering a judgment under this law can be a complicated matter. If you are a New York nursing home resident or relative of a resident who has been denied lawful rights and benefits by a nursing home, contact Leandros A. Vrionedes, P.C. for a free consultation.