When Mrs. Sandra Smith’s daughter, Anna, placed her mom into a skilled nursing facility, she entrusted her most beloved family member to their care – care that the facility ensured her they could, and would, provide. Anna expected the facility’s staff and caregivers to keep her mom safe, and provide for her needs. Unfortunately, the facility did not keep their promise to Mrs. Smith and her family, violating multiple nursing home laws and regulations, including several of Mrs. Smith’s Nursing Home Resident’s Rights. During Ms. Smith’s residency, she suffered 32 falls, multiple injuries, and ongoing urinary tract infections (UTIs), ultimately leading to her death. Her death, and the extent of neglect she suffered, devastated Mrs. Smith’s family, prompting them to turn to Coker Law shareholder and experienced trial attorney Steve Watrel for justice.
Mrs. Smith treasured the family she and her late husband of 54 years had created – three children and six grandchildren. Like many families, the Smith family enjoyed spending holidays together making memories, and Christmas was no exception. She spent time with her grandchildren, and helped her daughter in the kitchen. Unfortunately, shortly after Christmas, Mrs. Smith fell and fractured her hip. Following hip replacement surgery, she began to experience violent epileptic seizures. With a diagnosed seizure disorder, Mrs. Smith needed someone to assist as needed, should she experience an epileptic episode. She moved in with her daughter, Anna, a single mom who worked full-time. Anna took off as much time as she could in order to care for her mom, and transport her to medical appointments. Eventually, Anna had to return to work in order to provide for her family. While at work, she found herself worrying constantly about her mom. What if she has a seizure, and no one is there to keep her from falling or injuring herself? What if she falls and needs medical attention, and cannot get to the phone? Finally, Anna chose to place her mom in a skilled nursing facility to ensure that her mom was in a safe environment and was receiving appropriate medical care, should she need it.
Mrs. Smith knew that it was best for her to live in a skilled nursing facility and felt safer knowing she would have staff 24 hours a day to assist her. She walked into the nursing home independently and made herself at home there. Upon admission to the nursing home, due to her epilepsy diagnosis and prior falls, Mrs. Smith was noted to be a fall risk. The facility knew her history of seizures, falls, and gait issues; but, despite this knowledge, the facility did not create a required care plan to her risk of falling, and personal interventions to help prevent falls. Additionally, the facility failed to complete other required medical assessments, and few nursing notes were documented during Mrs. Smith’s residency. She suffered 32 falls, many unreported, resulting in severe low back pain, a compression fracture of the spine, rib fractures, scalp contusions, and a skull fracture.
These injuries eventually left her unable to walk on her own and made her bed-bound, putting her at a higher risk for development of UTIs. In total, Mrs. Smith suffered nine UTIs while in the facility. Staff ignored Mrs. Smith, refusing to help her to the bathroom, forcing her to hold her urine, or leaving her sitting in her own feces and urine for long periods of time. Staff did not follow physician’s orders to hydrate Mrs. Smith, nor did they complete an ordered lab test, which would have detected kidney function and dehydration. They failed to report her worsening condition to the physician and ignored signs and symptoms of a severe UTI. Mrs. Smith’s daughter finally decided enough was enough and she insisted they transport her to the hospital. Mrs. Smith arrived in the emergency room with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dangerously low blood pressure, and an elevated pulse. She was diagnosed with a complicated UTI, renal failure, and hypovolemic shock and was admitted to the intensive care unit. She passed away the next day due to an untreated UTI, which resulted in septic shock, multiple organ failure, respiratory failure, hypoxemia, and severe metabolic acidosis.
Mrs. Smith’s family was devastated. While their mom was elderly and couldn’t do everything she had done in her younger years, she still had a lot of life in her. Her family felt strongly that she didn’t deserve to suffer and die at the hands of those entrusted with her care. They felt her death was completely preventable. So did Attorney Steve Watrel. Steve’s legal team created a game plan, and, after investigation, noted that all of the facility’s violations pointed to one major issue: a lack of nursing staff.
“While facilities are required to staff to the needs of their residents, most of them do not. To line their own pockets, the facility owners and management staff to the bare minimums and cut costs anywhere they can, even if it means cutting staff and, ultimately, resident care,” said Watrel. Watrel’s team was able to prove that the nursing home where Mrs. Smith had resided had regularly fallen below appropriate staffing levels; and, at the time of Mrs. Smith’s residency, the facility did not have enough staff to care for Mrs. Smith and other residents in the facility.
In an effort to avoid liability, the facility owners moved the facility’s license to other parties and took the position that there was no money to pay the Smith family. This presented a challenge because there was no available insurance to pay the claim. The owners of the facility then tried to get out of the lawsuit, claiming they had no responsibility in the day-to-day decision-making of the facility. Watrel navigated the nursing home’s complex corporate structure and discovered the contract showed that the owners legally assumed corporate control over management and operations, making the owners unable to avoid liability. Ultimately, Watrel’s experience and tenacity prevailed in pin-pointing where the liability for Mrs. Smith’s death lay, forcing the owners to take responsibility and agree to pay the Smith family a significant six-figure settlement.
“This is why it is crucial to choose an attorney who practices nursing home and assisted living cases every single day,” said Watrel. “We work the case from day one, as if we are taking it to trial, and our ultimate goal is to track down those who are responsible, and get justice for families.” Anna keeps a framed picture of her mom with her to remember who she was fighting for. The outcome gives her hope that the same fate will not happen to anyone else’s mom or dad, and that facilities will think twice about cutting funds for residents who are entrusted to their care.
Case Title: Anna Jones* as Personal Representative of the Estate of Sandra Smith* vs. Skilled Nursing Facility
Attorneys/Staff involved in case: Coker Law Shareholder Steve Watrel, Paralegal Pat Hill, Legal Assistant Sharon Adkins, Nursing Home Intake Lead April Tapp
Date of Settlement: Confidential
Amount of Settlement: Confidential significant six-figure settlement