When you win a lawsuit, the judge awards “damages.”  Two key types of damages are called compensatory damages, or compensation for the harm that occurred, and punitive damages, which are sometimes ordered as a punishment in cases where the defendant’s misconduct was particularly egregious.  As of June 10, 2015, Pennsylvania does not set “caps” or limits on punitive damages for nursing home injury cases – but that could all change soon.  If the Pennsylvania Senate passes Senate Bill 747, punitive damages for nursing home neglect and abuse victims will be capped and drastically reduced.  As a nursing home abuse attorney who sees firsthand the devastation that plaintiffs and their loved ones endure, I’m urging all of my readers to call your state representatives and take a stand against SB 747 before it’s too late.

Proposed Bill Would Reduce Damages for Nursing Home Abuse Victims

June is Elder Abuse Awareness Month.  Sadly, the “awareness” is a disheartening one, considering the alarming statistics about elder abuse and nursing home neglect.  According to a June 5 letter I received from Malcolm L. MacGregor, President of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, “Over 120,000 elderly, disabled, and vulnerable residents of Pennsylvania nursing homes each and every day face the very real possibility of becoming victims of abuse and neglect.  267 of the 699 Pennsylvania nursing homes rated by Medicare (38%) were found practicing below the average in quality of care.”

It isn’t just a problem in Pennsylvania, either – according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately one in 10 seniors across the U.S. reported suffering abuse in 2008 alone. These already concerning statistics become even more alarming when you consider the fact that elder abuse is vastly under-reported, as many victims fear consequences like nursing home eviction or increased retaliatory abuse from their caregivers.

So what are Pennsylvania lawmakers doing to address this ever-growing crisis?  The Pennsylvania Senate is certainly taking action – but not in any way that benefits the elderly.

As Mr. MacGregor noted in his letter, “The Pennsylvania Senate is scheduled to consider a piece of legislation that eliminates one of the few remaining means of holding nursing homes accountable for neglect or abuse.”  The piece of legislation to which Mr. MacGregor refers is Senate Bill 747, which, if passed, would set a cap on punitive damages arising from nursing home wrongful death and personal injury cases.

Specifically, the damage cap proposed by SB 747 would slash any punitive damage verdict down to just 200% of the actual damages.  200% may sound like a large number – but as Mr. MacGregor points out, “The typical nursing home claimant has no meaningful actual damages, [so] the only way a resident can obtain redress for the harm caused to them is through punitive damages.”

Unjust as they are, these damage caps would not be the only negative consequence of SB 747.  In his letter to me, Mr. MacGregor astutely pointed out that the “threat of punitive damages incentivizes nursing homes to provide high quality healthcare to our parents and grandparents.”  Thus, in addition to depriving abuse victims and their loved ones of appropriate compensation, SB 747 would arguably have the indirect effect of emboldening nursing homes which fail to operate in accordance with state and federal standards of care.  This lack of significant penalties will only feed a vicious cycle of abuse.

empty courtroom with scales of justice

Contact Your PA Congressman or Senator to Protest Senate Bill 747

As a nursing home abuse lawyer, I’m a personal witness to the terrible suffering that elder abuse victims and their family members endure.  While it goes without saying that no amount of compensation can ever take away abuse that has already occurred, safeguarding the potential for victims to recover reasonable damages remains absolutely vital – not only in terms of adequately compensating medical expenses (which are the number one source of debt in the United States), but also for providing the victims with a sense of justice and accountability for the wrongdoing that took place.

Lowering the ceiling for punitive damages is not only a financial blow, it is also a profound psychological blow.  Speaking frankly, it sends the message that nursing homes need only worry about a financial slap on the wrist for gross and wholly unjustifiable misconduct.  As Mr. MacGregor wrote in his letter to me, “Senate Bill 747 allows unsafe nursing homes and their irresponsible corporate owners to not be able [to be] held accountable for abuse and neglect.”

Like Mr. MacGregor and countless other advocates for justice, I am disturbed by the moral and ethical implications of SB 747. Of course, it would be unfair to ask my readers to contact their representatives without doing the same myself, so I wrote the following letter to State Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Phila.) earlier this month:

Dear Senator Farnese –

I’m writing in regards to Senate Bill 747 which imposes a cap on punitive damages against nursing homes.  As a nursing home abuse attorney, I know the only thing that motivates nursing homes to hire sufficient staff and provide quality care is the fear of punitive damages.  This bill is a step in the wrong direction for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable residents.  It would allow nursing homes to operate with impunity, as they would not be held accountable for even the most egregious violations.

Please do the right thing and take a stand against this bill.

Thank you.

Don’t forget that politicians represent their constituents, not the other way around.  Just by writing a brief letter or placing a quick phone call, you can make a difference.  It only takes a few minutes.  You can contact State Sen. Farnese by filling out the message form on his website, or find your legislator just by typing in your zip code.

If you’re worried that your elderly loved one may be a victim of abuse, I urge you to call me at (800) 481-5206, any time of day or evening, to talk about your concerns in a free and confidential legal consultation.  I work with clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and am prepared to handle a wide variety of claims, including common issues like nursing home falls, bed sores, and medication errors.

Please be advised this article does not constitute legal advice.  You should always consult with an attorney if you have any questions or concerns regarding violations of senior citizens’ legal rights or the process of filing a personal injury or wrongful death claim in your state.