This week, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia issued its opinion in Manor Care, Inc. et al. v. Douglas. In a majority opinion authored by Justice Robin Davis, the Court dismissed two of the plaintiff’s causes of action, vacating $6.5 million of the damages awarded by the jury, and gave the plaintiff the option to accept a reduced punitive damages award of nearly $32 million or to seek a new trial on damages.
Manor Care came to the Court after a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding $11.5 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages. The plaintiff sought recovery for various causes of action—negligence under the Medical Professional Liability Act, violations of the Nursing Home Act, breach of fiduciary duty, and corporate negligence—stemming from the death of his mother shortly after she had been transferred from Hartland Nursing Home in Charleston, West Virginia.
On appeal, the defendants challenged errors on the verdict form, recognition of a breach of fiduciary duty claim, and the circuit court’s failure to find the MPLA was the plaintiff’s exclusive remedy and the NHA claim was limited by the MPLA. The defendants also sought to vacate the punitive damages award or, at the least, remit the punitive damages award because it was unconstitutionally excessive.
First, the Court rejected the challenges to the verdict form. This presented two issues: (1) whether punitive damages should have been determined on a defendant-by-defendant basis and (2) whether non-parties were impermissibly awarded damages. The first issue was waived because the defendants withdrew their request for separation on the verdict form to avoid having multiple lines allowing punitive damages awards. The award of damages to non-parties was an issue because the verdict form allowed the jury to award damages directly to the decedent’s children. The defendants argued this offended the wrongful death statute, which provides the representative of the decedent is the party in interest. Although listing the children on the verdict form was an error, it was harmless because the children, as beneficiaries, would receive any monetary award.
Second, consistent with prior holdings, the Court found some claims are covered by the MPLA and some are not. Justice Davis, adopting her dissent in Riggs, wrote that since Boggs, the Court recognized the MPLA only applies to allegations related to “health care” as defined by the Act. Whether services are “health care” services is a case-specific, fact driven inquiry that requires determination by the judge. As the new syllabus point states:
While the applicability of the Medical Professional Liability Act, W. Va. Code § 55-7B-1 et seq., is based upon the facts of a given case, the determination of whether a particular cause of action is governed by the Act is a legal question to be decided by the trial court.
The Court found the circuit court implicitly recognized some of the claims were governed by the MPLA and others were not because the verdict form allowed for apportionment of fault among general and medical negligence. The Court discussed the evidence related to understaffing as a result of budgeting decisions made by companies that were not “health care providers” under the MPLA and concluded claims related to budgeting and staffing by non-health care providers simply fell outside the MPLA.
Third, the NHA claims were dismissed because of vagueness of the verdict form. The verdict form asked the jury to determine whether a violation of the NHA contributed to the decedent’s injury. The Court was “utterly unable to determine what, exactly, was the basis for the $1.5 million . . . award by the jury” because of the vague use of “injury.” Unable to review the nature of the NHA claim and because of the vagueness of the verdict form, the Court dismissed the NHA claim and vacated the $1.5 million award.
Fourth, there is no cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty against a nursing home. Despite the plaintiff’s invitation for the Court to find this cause of action existed, the Court declined to do so. Finding the circuit court’s recognition of this cause of action was an error, the Court vacated the $5 million award for this claim.
Fifth, having vacated $6.5 million of the plaintiff’s compensatory damages award and leaving approximately $5 million of the verdict intact, the Court turned to whether punitive damages were warranted and, if so, whether the $80 million award was unconstitutionally excessive. Finding punitive damages were warranted, the Court deferred to the findings of the circuit court:
We agree with the circuit court’s conclusion. The evidence presented at trial was sufficient to establish that Heartland Nursing Home was chronically understaffed to the point that it was not able to provide even a life sustaining amount of water to Ms. Douglas during the nineteen days she resided in that facility. Moreover, by virtue of complaints from staff, residents, and their families, and surveys conducted by the State of West Virginia, [the defendants] were made aware of the understaffing problem at Heartland Nursing Home . . . .
Turning to whether the $80 million award was excessive, the Court focused on the 7:1 ratio between the original compensatory damages award and punitive damages award. This ratio was not constitutionally excessive upon review of the Garnes factors. The Court then multiplied the remaining compensatory damages award of approximately $5 million to determine a remittitur of just over $48 million was necessary; remaining was a punitive damages award of nearly $32 million. The Court gave the plaintiff the option of accepting the new award or seeking a new trial on punitive damages.
Justice Margaret Workman concurred, writing separately to express her disagreement with the Court’s reasoning in dismissing the NHA claim. Justice Brent Benjamin concurred in part and dissented in part because he found punitive damages were not justified due to the verdict form’s insufficiency. Finally, Justice Allen Loughry II dissented because the verdict form presented “non-viable” causes of action and the punitive damages award exceeded acceptable constitutional limitations.