CHA News Article

Appeals Court Rules on Hospital’s Elder Abuse Liability
May be premised on understaffing in violation of regulations

Last week, a state appeals court reversed a previous decision in Fenimore v. The Regents of the University of California, holding that the trial court improperly sustained the University’s claim that there was no legal basis for the lawsuit. In this case, plaintiffs alleged that the hospital committed neglect as defined in the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (EADACPA) by allowing the patient to fall minutes after entering the facility, failing to treat his fractured hip for four days and violating state staffing regulations. The Court of Appeal found that the first two allegations were insufficient to support elder abuse liability because they demonstrated no more than mere negligence. However, plaintiffs’ additional allegation that the hospital violated state staffing regulations provided a sufficient basis for finding neglect.

The Court of Appeal further held that allegations that the hospital had “a knowing pattern and practice of understaffing in violation of applicable regulations” supported an inference of recklessness. Though the court recognized that EADACPA does not impose liability for simple or gross negligence by health care providers — and instead requires plaintiffs to plead and prove something more than negligence, such as reckless, oppressive, fraudulent or malicious conduct — it found that the hospital’s alleged violation of staffing regulations provided a sufficient basis for finding neglect.

Hospitals are reminded that all inpatients over the age of 18 are considered either “dependent adults” (under 65) or elder adults (65 and over) and thus protected by EADACPA. One important distinction between neglect under EADACPA and negligence in a medical malpractice case is that the $250,00 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act limit on noneconomic (“pain and suffering”) damages does not apply in EADACPA cases. Therefore, hospitals may find that plaintiffs’ attorneys seek staffing records in all malpractice cases in an attempt to avoid the $250,000 limit.