Life Care Centers of America and one of its operating partners must face a wrongful death trial for alleged lapses in protocol at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Attorneys for Life Care, owners of the first US nursing home to be hit by a COVID outbreak, had asked for summary judgment in the case, citing “inadequate evidence” to support claims of negligence, wrongful death, fraud and violations of state abuse and consumer protection laws.
The plaintiffs, survivors of two women who died in March 2020 after being exposed to COVID at Life Care Center of Kirkland, allege that the facility ignored its own policy on outbreak control and management that was in place when the virus first began circulating in the US. According to court documents, the facility also did not update its policies and procedures in response to COVID in January or February, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first guidance on evaluating patients for the virus.
A medical expert for the plaintiffs said the facility’s leaders should have at least followed their own policy for flu outbreaks. That required isolating sick residents, a step the facility had not taken even as staff noted an increase in respiratory illnesses. In part, that was because residents with acute fever all tested negative for flu, and at the time, COVID tests were restricted by federal health officials to those with known exposures or recent travel to China, Life Care attorneys previously noted.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services did not publish its first COVID-19 guidance for nursing homes until March 9.
Still, citing Kirkland staff’s decision to allow a group gathering to celebrate Mardi Gras on Feb. 26 — the same day the facility’s infection preventionist discussed a possible outbreak with the local health department — US District Judge Marsha Pechman said she would let most of the claims move forward in court.
“Having considered the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the court funds sufficient evidence of causation,” Pechman wrote regarding the medical negligence, abuse and wrongful death claims.
Kirkland resident Barbara Dreyfuss was sent to the hospital in respiratory distress on Feb. 27, 2020, and Robin Hamrick followed on March 8. Both women died in March. The medical expert for their estates estimated they were exposed to the coronavirus in mid- to late-February.
Life Care leaders on Monday declined to comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit or the operating climate during the early pandemic.
“We are aware of the court’s ruling regarding lawsuits against Life Care Centers of America in the state of Washington. Understandably, we cannot comment due to pending litigation and HIPAA regulations,” the company said in a statement provided to McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.
The Kirkland facility had a 5-star rating when the outbreak occurred, and federal officials were later criticized for rushing in to investigate lapses in infection control while the outbreak raged. It was managed by Lake Vue Operations, which is also named as a defendant in the case.
While the facility’s overall rating took a major hit after multiple Immediate Jeopardy citations and $600,000 in penalties related to the deadly outbreak, it maintains five stars on Quality Measures. More than 99% of the building’s staff is fully vaccinated against COVID, and 59.6% of residents are up to date on shots, both figures that outpace national averages.
Pecham noted in her decision that the medical expert’s evidence of causation was “attenuated,” or thin, but that it was strong enough to bring the matter to court. That will leave it up to the trial judge or jury to determine whether the expert’s opinion “is persuasive in light of all of the evidence that may be presented in this case,” Pecham wrote.
The judge did rule in Life Care’s favor regarding consumer protection, fraud and negligent misrepresentation. Those claims will not be allowed to move forward, with the judge referring to “fatal defects and evidentiary gaps” in the plaintiffs’ claims. The plaintiffs had argued that Life Care’s corporate office concealed information from them in 2020, but the judge noted that allegation was not backed up by any explanation of what was withheld or how it could have harmed them.
A trial is now set to begin in May in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington.The case is Briggs vs. Life Care Centers of America, et al. Also named as defendants are former Western Operations Vice President Todd Fletcher, now Life Care’s president, and Executive Director Ellie Basham.