The burden of proof in these cases is high, and sometimes nursing homes are found not liable, either civilly or criminally, for their negligence as a result. In one such recent case from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Commonwealth v. Life Care Centers of America, the state’s highest court found that a nursing home could not be held criminally liable for a resident’s death at a facility.
Julia McCauley had been a resident of the Life Care Center since 1996. It was well known to staff that she had tried to escape from the nursing home on multiple occasions. As a result, she had to wear a WanderGuard bracelet. This bracelet was designed to track Ms. McCauley’s whereabouts, and set off an alarm when she tried to leave the building. Due to an error by the nursing staff, the order for the WanderGuard bracelet was deleted from her chart. On April 10, 2004, when Ms. McCauley was not wearing the WanderGuard bracelet, she wheeled herself to the front of the facility and fell down the steps to her death. Life Care Center was subsequently indicted by a grand jury on charges of involuntary manslaughter. To support the charge, the Commonwealth argued that the collective negligence of several nursing home employees caused the facility to be criminally liable for Ms. McCauley’s death.
The SJC, however, overturned the conviction. The Court found that in order for the nursing home as a whole to be held criminally liable for Ms. McCauley’s death, at least one of the employees would have needed to act with sufficient criminal intent. The Court found that the employees were merely negligent. Therefore, the collective negligence of the employees was not enough to support the nursing home’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter.
Before placing a loved one in a nursing home, families need to take adequate steps to ensure that the facility is a safe and appropriate placement. Consulting with a private geriatric care manager who can provide an honest and unbiased opinion of different facilities in the state is always a recommended option. While the court system is doing its part in trying to establish standards of liability for nursing homes and their staff, individuals and families also need to make an informed decision when placing their loved one in a facility.