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CA Court Upholds Verdict in Elder Abuse Claim

In California, elder abuse and neglect are unfortunately common. One type of elder abuse involves the financial exploitation of the elderly. When a nursing home or its staff misappropriated funds from elderly residents, they have grounds to file lawsuits against the facility and the employee. In Arace v. Medico Investments, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. E071194, the appeals court reviewed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees and legal costs in a case in which the plaintiff did not receive economic damages or non-economic damages for one cause of action. It also looked at whether an award of economic damages for neglect was proper when the jury did not award non-economic damages for the same cause of action.[1]

Background of the case

Grace R. Miller, who was born in 1927, lived at a residential care facility named Foremost Senior Campus from March 2010 to April 2014. The care facility was owned by Leonard Crites, and Elizabeth Colon was an employee who worked at the facility. Crites purchased Miller’s home in 2010 for $66,000 and promised her that she could live at Foremost Senior Campus for life without charge. Medico bought Foremost Senior Campus in May 2012 in a short sale and kept Colon as the administrator. Medico was not informed that Crites had promised Miller to live for free at Foremost Senior Campus for life.

Colon secured a durable power of attorney in early 2013 from Miller, giving her authority over Miller’s health care decisions and property. Medico approached Colon and told her that Miller was living for free at Foremost Senior Campus in 2013. Colon got Medico to agree to reduce Miller’s monthly charge by 50%. Medico then sought payment on Miller’s past-due balance through Colon’s power of attorney. Miller continued living in the facility until March 27, 2014. At that time, Colon moved her into a private home.

In 2014, Melanie Arace, the great-niece of Miller, learned that Colon had control over Miller’s finances. She demanded that Colon surrender the power of attorney to Miller and that Colon return her great-aunt’s money. Colon turned over $145,885.90 of Miller’s money that she had deposited in Colon’s personal bank account in Feb. 2015.

Arace filed a lawsuit against Medico and Colon in April 2015, alleging elder abuse and neglect. In December 2015, Miller passed away. Arace filed an amended complaint as the personal representative and successor-in-interest of Miller’s estate in April 2016, alleging fraud, conversion, constructive fraud, elder abuse, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence against Medico because of Colon’s misappropriation, and negligent supervision.

The case went to trial against Medico for financial abuse, negligence, and neglect. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Arace. While it found that Medico had engaged in financial abuse, the jury did not award economic or non-economic damages for that cause of action. The jury also found that Medico was guilty of neglect and awarded Arace $39,296.32 in economic damages but nothing in non-economic damages. Finally, the jury found that while Medico was negligent, its negligence was not a substantial factor in the harm that was caused.

In addition to the $39,296.32 in economic damages for Medico’s neglect, Arace was also awarded $89,410 for attorney’s fees and $20,995.36 for legal costs. Medico filed an appeal, arguing that the court erred when it denied Medico’s motion to continue the trial because a material witness was unavailable. It also argued that the court should not have awarded Arace attorney’s fees and legal costs and that the award of economic damages should not have been given because the jury did not award Arace non-economic damages for neglect.

Issue: Whether the trial court erred in awarding attorney’s fees, legal costs, and economic damages to the plaintiff, and whether it erred when it denied Medico’s motion to continue the trial?

Medico moved for a continuance of the jury trial on the morning of the trial based on the unavailability of Colon to testify. The court denied the motion because the trial had been continued previously and that Colon had been deposed at a deposition that Medico chose not to attend. Medico argued that the court’s denial of the motion to continue was a prejudicial error. It also argued that the Elder Abuse Act does not allow a plaintiff to recover attorney’s fees and costs for a cause of action in which the plaintiff was not found to have suffered actual damages. According to Medico, this meant that the court should not have awarded attorney’s fees and costs on the financial abuse cause of action. It also argued that the jury’s award of economic damages on the neglect cause of action was also erroneous since the jury did not award non-economic damages.

Rule: When a plaintiff proves that a defendant is guilty of financial abuse, the plaintiff shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and legal costs.

For the financial abuse cause of action, Medico argued that it is improper for the court to award attorney’s fees and legal costs when the plaintiff did not recover damages. Under the Elder Abuse Act, attorney’s fees and costs are to be awarded when a plaintiff proves that a defendant is liable for financial abuse by a preponderance of the evidence. Medico also argued that the Elder Abuse Act prohibits the recovery of economic damages when a jury does not award any non-economic damages.

Analysis

In California, a nursing home or other facility that is found to have engaged in the financial abuse of a dependent adult will be required to pay the attorney’s fees and costs associated with prosecuting the action.[2] The court first reviewed Medico’s contention that the trial court erred when it denied Medico’s motion to continue. The court noted that the trial had been continued twice because of Medico’s previous motions and that Medico knew that Colon had been deposed but failed to attend the deposition. It did not agree that the denial of the continuance motion was an error or that the absence of Colon at the trial prejudiced Medico at trial.

The court then turned to the award of attorney’s fees and costs on the financial abuse cause of action. While the jury found that Medico was liable for financial abuse, it did not award any economic or non-economic damages on that count. Medico argued that under the Elder Abuse Act, the court should not have awarded attorney’s fees or costs because the jury did not award any damages to the plaintiff. The court looked at §15657.5(a) of the law. Under that statute, the court shall order the award of attorney’s fees and costs when a plaintiff proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is liable for financial abuse. The court found that the jury had found that Medico was liable for the financial abuse of Miller by its employee even though the jury did not award economic or non-economic damages. By the plain language of the statute, the court found that the award of attorney’s fees and legal costs was mandatory instead of discretionary.

The court finally looked at Medico’s argument that the jury’s award of economic damages for the neglect cause of action was improper since it did not award any non-economic damages. Medico argued that elder abuse by neglect requires a physical manifestation of the neglect. However, the court noted that the jury instruction that was given and the definition of neglect in the Elder Abuse Act do not require a finding of pain and suffering for economic damages to be awarded.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Medico was ordered to pay Arace’s costs on appeal.

Contact the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers

If your loved one was the victim of elder abuse or neglect in a nursing home, you may have legal rights to recover damages from the responsible parties and to hold them accountable for their actions. Contact the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers to learn more about the remedies that might be available to you by calling us at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/e071194.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-05-15-personal-injury-dc332641b4&utm_content=text-case-read-more-5

[2] https://www.victimslawyer.com/dependent-adult-abuse.html

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