Despite the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of a constitutional right for a jury to determine damages, the West Virginia Supreme Court has slashed by more than half the multimillion-dollar damages a jury levied against a national for-profit nursing home chain for their conscious decision to understaff the facility causing a former resident’s death. Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib Jr. last year denied a defense motion for a new trial. He ruled the verdict appropriately punished Heartland of Charleston’s corporate owner, HCR Manor Care, for a history of intentionally short-staffing nursing homes to maximize profit.
In a 76-page opinion released, the justices reduced the penalty against Heartland of Charleston from $91 million to $37 million. The court arbitrarily reduced a jury’s $11.5 million award in compensatory damages to $4.6 million, saying the lower court erred in its ruling on certain issues, and reduced punitive damages from $80 million to $32 million. The Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages based on a 7-to-1 ratio of punitive-to-compensatory damages reflecting the reduced compensatory amount.
After a nearly two-week trial in 2011, a jury found that Heartland of Charleston which is owned and operated by Manor Care Inc., failed to feed and care for Dorothy Douglas. She stayed at the home for about three weeks while awaiting space to open up at another facility. The neglected woman died after her release from Heartland in 2009.