dave-mittlemanHumboldt County, CA–Earlier this week, a group of California jurors announced the largest verdict in history against a nursing home accused of abuse. That verdict of $677 million sent shock waves through the nursing home industry and riled tort reformers who used the large amount as “proof” of litigation abuse.

Cindy Cool is the 58-year-old daughter of a nursing home resident who suffered needlessly at the hands of the short-staffed Eureka Healthcare and Rehabilitation nursing home. She is also part of a class-action lawsuit of 32,000 patients that blame for-profit nursing homes across the country for poor patient care. In court testimony, Cool described how her Alzheimer’s-suffering father was forced to sit in his own urine-soaked clothes for hours at a time while waiting for nursing home staff to assist him. At times, it would take over 20 minutes for the staff to respond.

Nursing home abuse complaints have steadily risen over the past ten years. Victims of nursing home abuse and their families link the decline in quality care to the Wall Street buying spree of nursing homes in the early part of the century. They argue that instead of worrying about providing quality care for patients, nursing homes are focused on sticking to the bottom line and cutting staff people is an easy method to accomplish this goal. In fact, the nursing home where Cool’s father lived is owned by Skilled Healthcare Group, Inc., which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

On July 6, the Humboldt County jury found Skilled Healthcare Group, Inc. violated state regulations on numerous occasions which required it to keep a minimum number of nurses on staff. Skilled Healthcare CEO Boyd Hendrickson decried the jury’s decision and vowed to challenge the verdict. The company’s options seem to be shrinking, however, as the presiding judge already shot down one of the company’s challenges for a mistrial based on juror misconduct. Meanwhile, the company’s ability to appeal is also in question since company’s are usually required to post 150% of the verdict as bond. Currently, the company doesn’t have the cash or credit to post and likely faces bankruptcy if the verdict stands up. Nevertheless, California nursing staff minimums are actually lower than the national minimums–California requires 3.2 nursing hours per patient per day while federal requirements are much more stringent and require 4.1 hours–making it much easier for Skilled Healthcare to meet these standards when compared to other nursing homes. Pat McGinnis, the executive director and founder of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, recently pointed out that nursing staff shortages are a major problem in California.