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Jury imposes maximum damages on Skilled Healthcare; nursing home chain faces upwards of $600 million for health code violations
Contra Costa Times
The jury in the class-action lawsuit against Skilled Healthcare returned to Humboldt County Superior Court and rendered a verdict on Tuesday, opting to impose the maximum amount of damages totaling nearly $619 million for health code violations.
The verdict comes more than seven months after the start of the case, which is believed to be the longest civil suit in Humboldt County history.
"This is a really strong statement to Skilled Healthcare that they have to follow the law," said plaintiff's Attorney Michael Thamer, who delivered the closing arguments in the case and specializes in fighting corporate abuse. "They need to know that they are going to be held responsible."
The issue at the heart of the case is a California statute that mandates 3.2 nursing hours per patient per day. The lawsuit covers the years 2003 to 2009, and represents a class of some 32,000 patients. Along with the statutory damages, the jury awarded an additional $58 million for a violation of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, bringing the total damages to nearly $677 million.
Skilled Healthcare is one of the largest nursing home chains in the country, employing approximately 14,000 people. The company is based in Southern California, and operates 78 nursing facilities in seven states.
Eureka, Granada, Pacific, Seaview and St. Luke Healthcare and Rehabilitation are the five Skilled Healthcare facilities here in Humboldt County. The total amount of damages imposed on the five Humboldt County facilities is nearly $135 million.
Because of multiple changes to the computer system the courthouse uses to track cases, there is no way of determining how the length of the Skilled Healthcare lawsuit compares to previous Humboldt County civil suits. But many people in the courthouse say the trial, which began November 30 of 2009, is the longest civil suit in county history. And it isn't over yet.
Next week the jury will decide the extent of additional punitive damages. Judge Bruce Watson will then decide if the court will issue an injunction against Skilled Healthcare that would mandate the company to keep staffing levels compliant with the law in the future.
Defense Attorney Kippy Wroten was not in court for the verdict and declined to comment, instead issuing a statement via e-mail.
"With respect to the court and to these judicial proceedings as a whole, we strongly disagree with the outcome of this legal matter. We remain confident that our facilities are well staffed and are extremely disappointed with this result. Unfortunately we cannot comment further as the matter is ongoing."
The second phase of the jury trial, which will establish the net worth of the company in order for the jury in order to decide the extent of any punitive damages, is set to begin next week.
Cindy Cool testified earlier in the case on behalf of her father, a former patient at Eureka Healthcare and Rehabilitation before he died from complications of Alzheimer's disease. Cool was in court again Tuesday, and had to fight back tears after she heard the verdict.
"I'm so thankful for this," said Cool, who added that while it may be too late for her father to receive justice, she hopes the lawsuit makes things better for future patients. "We just want our loved ones to be taken care of."
BY THE NUMBERS:
The following is a breakdown of the penalties imposed on Skilled Heathcare's five Humboldt County facilities by the jury. These numbers include statutory damages and penalties for violating the Consumer Legal Remedies Act:
TOTAL -- $134,700,685
Matt Drange can be reached at 441-0514 or firstname.lastname@example.org