March 6, 2013
State Senate bill limits nursing home liability

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bill passed by the state Senate Wednesday would place a limit on the amount nursing homes would be forced to pay if sued.

The measure explicitly includes nursing homes under the protections of a 2003 law that places limits on medical malpractice suits. The Medical Professionals Liability Act places a $500,000 cap on the non-economic damages for which health-care providers are liable.

The 2003 law defined nursing homes as health-care facilities, but left it somewhat ambiguous as to whether they were also protected as providers.

Sen. Evan Jenkins, one of the bill's sponsors and the director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, said that the Legislature always meant for the liability act to apply to nursing homes, but sometimes clarifications were necessary.

"This bill, its only purpose was to make it clear that the Legislature had every intent to apply the MPLA to allegations of medical negligence against a nursing home," Jenkins said. "We're trying to make it clear."

In a high profile 2011 case, a jury found Heartland nursing home in Charleston liable for $90 million in damages for the dehydration death of an 87-year-old woman. Wednesday's bill would not apply retroactively to that case, but even if it did, the vast majority of the $90 million verdict would be unaffected.

Of the total amount awarded, approximately $80 million was in punitive damages, which are not affected by the liability act. The bulk of the remaining $10 million was awarded for non-medical negligence. The judge ruled, in essence, that because the woman died from dehydration, it was not a doctor or medical error and was not covered by the liability law. The case is being appealed and is pending before the state Supreme Court.

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