Nursing Home Abuse Verdicts

Nursing home abuse cases are perhaps the most difficult cases for lawyers to handle. They usually involve elderly and feeble people who are unable to communicate and explain what’s happened to them. That includes their ability to defend themselves against the abusive situation within the nursing home and certainly not in a court of law.

Most nursing home abuse cases that come before a law firm are civil law matters, not criminal prosecutions, and are situations of neglect rather than intentional physical harm inflicted on the nursing home resident. The alarm is usually sounded by a family member or occasionally a staff member who has reason to suspect that abuse has or is taking place.

The evidence in a nursing home case that a lawyer must eventually take before a jury has to convince twelve common members of society, who are chosen to decide on the facts placed before them, that:

  • The evidence establishes that the alleged abuse, in fact, took place
  • The nursing home or individual failed a duty to care for the resident
  • There is some form of compensation and punitive action due

Evidence placed before a jury is interpreted through:

  • Witness statements and sworn testimony
  • Observations, diagrams and photographs
  • Patterns of behavior
  • Interpretations of medical records
  • Expert witness opinions

This evidence, whether in a criminal or civil trial, has to be presented through witnesses whom the jury needs to find credible. They must believe the witness is telling the truth and that the entirety of the evidence leads them to a reasonable conclusion. A jury’s conclusion can be that the accused party or defendant is guilty, not guilty, or sometimes partially to blame.

Reaching a proper jury verdict has a lot to do with the type of nursing home abuse case and what form of court jurisdiction it’s being heard in. The great majority of jury trials involving nursing home abuse are civil processes that are heard in State courts rather than Federal courts. Most nursing home abuse cases are not criminal prosecutions where the government takes action against an individual accused of a penal code violation and where the government body absorbs the prosecution costs.

Almost all of the nursing home abuse cases that a private law firm takes on are civil proceedings and are paid for privately. This is usually where the family of an abuse victim seeks to prove that wrongdoing took place and reach to the civil courts to compensate them for:

  • Emotional and suffering damages
  • Financial costs and reimbursement for expenses
  • Punitive awards against the nursing home or individual offender

In a lawsuit brought before court in a jury trial, it’s not the judge sitting on the case who makes the decision of right and wrong. That verdict is delivered by the jury members who are empaneled to listen to the evidence and make their decision based solely on the weight of evidence placed before them.

In understanding how a jury reaches a verdict and what legal verdicts are available to them, it’s important to review how the jury system works and the different types of courts where a jury system is used.

Criminal Court

Realistically, the only types of nursing home abuse that would be brought before a jury in criminal court would be serious penal code offenses. These would involve significant circumstances where:

  • Death occurred from intentional or grossly negligent acts
  • Injury or grievous bodily harm occurred from wrongful acts
  • Cases of sexual assault in a nursing home
  • Serious financial offenses involving large thefts, frauds or forgeries

Minor criminal offenses involving a nursing home resident victim would not likely involve facts being presented to a jury. They would be tried by a judge alone.

With very few exceptions, criminal case juries must be unanimous in their decision and the choice is between guilty and not guilty. Criminal juries must be convinced of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The test of “reasonableness” must amount to a belief above having a strong suspicion, however the burden of proof is not beyond “all” doubt.

Criminal juries are allowed leeway in their interpretation and application of “reasonableness”. This is an issue the trial judge will make clear prior to directing the jury members to deliberate and return their verdict.

Civil Court

The vast majority of jury trials involving nursing home abuse cases are held in civil courts. Here, a complaint of abuse is brought forward by the plaintiff against the defendant. Usually, the plaintiff is family members acting on behalf of the victim of abuse who are seeking compensation against the defendant. Usually, the primary defendant is the nursing home corporate body represented by their lawyer and a company executive.

The processes involving a civil jury trial involve:

  • A claim filed which is the start of the lawsuit or legal action
  • An investigation into the facts that identifies witnesses and their evidence
  • Notices and statements of fact being served by each party
  • Examination for discovery prior to trial where witnesses are examined under oath
  • Preparation for trial and offers to settle
  • Jury trial commenced and twelve jury members chosen
  • Evidence placed before the jury members
  • Direction or charge to the jury by the trial judge at conclusion of evidence
  • Jury deliberation in private
  • Delivery of verdict
  • Awarding of damages
  • Appeal process

Jury deliberations in all trials, whether civil or criminal, are always in private and the jury members are “sequestered” or held out of communication with the outside world from the time they retire for deliberation until they return with a verdict. This could range from a few hours to over a week.

Jury members hearing civil court evidence regarding nursing home abuse cases do not have the same burden of fact-finding that criminal juries do. The test for a civil jury is to reach a conclusion based on a “balance of probabilities” from the “preponderance of the evidence”. Depending on the jurisdiction, civil juries may not have to be unanimous in their decision and may only require a majority consensus.

Further, civil court juries have more options in fact and fault finding. Most civil court juries can find the defendant:

  • Not guilty
  • Guilty
  • Guilty to a lesser degree
  • Partially responsible
  • Responsible but not liable for damages or punitive action

Other Jury Trial Outcomes

All too often, mistakes are made during the jury trial process that are deemed to have compromised the jury’s ability to make an impartial decision and deliver a fair verdict. This can result in a “mistrial” where the case is abandoned and has to be retired.

Occasionally, a jury is unable to reach a verdict and gives up on deliberations. This is called a “hung jury” and also results in a retrial.

Despite a lengthy trial process and a long, careful jury deliberation and verdict delivery, lawyers for either the plaintiff or defendant may find an error in law that gives them grounds to appeal the jury’s decision to a higher court. The appellate court may choose to hear the appeal or refuse to hear it. Appeal courts have the right to uphold the verdict or order the verdict quashed and direct the case back to another trial.

References:

  1. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/jurydeliberate.html
  2. http://litigation.findlaw.com/legal-system/must-all-jury-verdicts-be-unanimous.html
  3. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB899230415933543500
  4. https://www.millerandzois.com/maryland-nursing-home-death.html
  5. http://litigation.findlaw.com/legal-system/federal-vs-state-courts-key-differences.html
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Dr. Christine Traxler

Christine Traxler, MD is a retired family practice physician, graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in 1986, and freelance writer, having worked with patients in rural Minnesota for two decades. She has written several books on medical topics and currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, where she works as a freelance writer on medical topics.

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