Jury in Jefferson County Awards $1.5M for West Virginia Nursing Home Death
A Jefferson County jury recently awarded $1.5 million to the family of a West Virginia woman who died due to nursing home neglect.
The victim was a 42-year-old mother with multiple sclerosis who resided in Willow Tree Healthcare Center in Charles Town, West Virginia.
“Other than some physical limitations with her MS and some swallowing difficulties that got worse in late 2019, she was healthy,” said the family’s attorney, Damon Ellis of Mani Ellis & Layne. “Even the nursing home admitted she was alert, mentally fit, and able to communicate her needs.”
Approximately 70 days before the ultimately fatal choking incident, she choked on her food during a visit with her father and stepmother. After swiping the food from her mouth, her father alerted the nursing home and discussed the incident with the director of nursing (DON) as well as the licensed practical nurse (LPN) on duty. The nurse advised that the nursing home would request a speech therapy evaluation and swallow study.
“That swallow study never happened,” Ellis said. “It was the nursing home’s responsibility to make sure it was done, and their own nurse advised them of the risk of a choking death. Had the swallow study been done, she would’ve been placed on a soft diet.”
Instead, on May 4, 2020, the resident was given a meal that contained “slabs” of dry meat that she could not cut up. About 25 to 30 minutes later, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) entered the room and found the resident partially unconscious.
“At every stage in this incident, the nursing home failed,” Ellis explained. “Her bed was angled at 45 degrees, which increases the risk of choking. The facility was understaffed, which is especially dangerous at mealtimes because residents need to be monitored while eating. And the first two CNAs in the room following the choking event were not CPR trained, even though that’s required – had they been able to perform CPR immediately, brain damage may have been avoided.”
Eventually, a nurse arrived to start CPR until emergency services arrived, but the victim suffered a brain injury due to oxygen deprivation because of the length of time she was unconscious. She spent two weeks in the hospital, two weeks in hospice care, and ultimately died 31 days after the incident, surrounded by her family.
Ellis and co-counsel Tom Harmon represented the family in a wrongful death lawsuit. On September 19, 2022, the jury returned the verdict: $500,000 for pain and suffering for the 31 days between the choking event and her death, and $1 million for her wrongful death.
According to Ellis, while the verdict provided a degree of accountability and closure, it was cold comfort for a family that loved her deeply.
“Her father visited her every day and made sure another relative visited on days he was out of town,” Ellis said. “When the nursing home had to stop visits due to COVID, he still called every day and came by and left coffee and food at the door. Her extended family visited often. Her 12-year-old-daughter would visit and lay in bed with her. And her dad attended her care plan meetings and spoke up whenever he saw anything concerning.”
“This is a family that did everything right,” Ellis added. “It’s beyond awful that they still lost a loved one because the facility they trusted did so much wrong.”
About Mani Ellis & Layne, PLLC
Mani Ellis & Layne, PLLC is a plaintiff’s personal injury law firm representing injured people in West Virginia and Ohio. The firm has offices in Charleston, WV, and Columbus, OH, and handles cases involving nursing home negligence, car accidents, slip and falls, medical malpractice, and other injury claims.