On May 27, 2015, the Superior Court of Hudson County, Law Division, vacated a $13.2 million verdict in a nursing home negligence suit – the largest such verdict in New Jersey – in Dwyer v. Harbor View Health Care Center, No. HUD-L-4819-11. The court’s decision was predicated on the fact that the jury could not have effectively allocated damages between the plaintiff’s common law negligence claim and the claims asserted under the New Jersey Nursing Home Act (NHA) and instead unjustly awarded double damages for the same harm.
The Dwyer court’s decision to vacate the award was based on the New Jersey Appellate Division’s recent ruling in Ptaszynski v. Atlantic Health Systems, Inc., 440 N.J.Super. 24 (App.Div. 2015), in which the court held that the NHA does not provide a private cause of action to a resident to enforce the "responsibilities" of nursing homes, as enumerated in the NHA.
By way of background, Dwyer was filed in early 2012. Plaintiff, the Estate of Mary Dwyer, brought claims against Harbor View Health Center (Harbor View), alleging: (1) negligence; (2) wrongful death; and (3) violations of the NHA for the injuries allegedly sustained by Ms. Dwyer during her nearly 100-day residency at Harbor View. Specifically, the plaintiff brought claims under N.J.S.A. 30:13-3, the "responsibilities" section of the NHA, and N.J.S.A. 30:13-5, the "rights" section of the NHA. In May 2014, after a seven-week trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the plaintiff for $13,213,400.
After an extensive post-trial briefing, the trial court issued an opinion vacating the awards under the NHA and reducing the punitive damages award. Both parties moved for reconsideration. In the interim, the Appellate Division issued its decision in Ptaszynski, which prohibited private plaintiffs from suing to enforce the "responsibilities" of long-term care facilities.
In rendering its decision to vacate what was left of the verdict and order a new trial in Dwyer, the court held that it was "bound" to apply Ptaszynski and grant a new trial because insufficient jury instructions "failed to provide the jury with an understanding on how to allocate damages between the common law negligence claims and the related [NHA] claims," thereby resulting in "impermissible double damages[.]"
Thus, the decision to vacate the Dwyer verdict clarified the Appellate Division’s holding in Ptaszynski and, perhaps, expanded on its reasoning by more fully addressing the dangerous potential for an award of double damages in cases under the NHA. Moving forward, long-term care facilities in New Jersey are now much better positioned to prevent a plaintiff from recovering double damages at trial and obtaining the dismissal of claims related to the nursing home’s "responsibilities" under the NHA. Similarly, if claims for resident “rights” are asserted under the NHA, including for violations of "dignity" or "individuality" which are difficult to define, we hope that courts will also consider dismissing these claims as "void for vagueness" based on Ptaszynski and the guidance offered by Dwyer.