Hatfield v. Allenbrooke Nursing & Rehab. Ctr., LLC, W2017-00957-COA-R3-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtJ. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE
Docket NumberNo. W2017-00957-COA-R3-CV,W2017-00957-COA-R3-CV
Decision Date06 August 2018


No. W2017-00957-COA-R3-CV


April 18, 2018 Session
August 6, 2018

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County
Donna M. Fields, Judge

This appeal results from a jury trial on claims of negligence, medical malpractice, and violations of the Tennessee Adult Protection Act by a nursing home. In addition to finding the limited liability company nursing home liable for the resident's injuries, the jury awarded extensive compensatory and punitive damages against the nursing home's related administrative services provider, the nursing home's parent companies, and the individual members of the parent companies. Defendants appeal, raising a variety of issues related to the jury impaneled, the evidence presented, and the finding of liability against the non-nursing home defendants. We reverse the jury's decision finding material evidence to subject the nursing home's parent companies and their members directly or vicariously liable in this case. We affirm the direct liability of the nursing home's administrative services provider. Because the amount of punitive damages awarded by the jury appears to be largely predicated on the liability of the non-nursing home defendants, we vacate the award and remand for a new hearing solely as to the amount of punitive damages to be awarded. In all other respects, the verdict is affirmed. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part; Reversed in Part; Vacated in Part; and Remanded

J. STEVEN STAFFORD, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which ARNOLD B. GOLDIN and KENNY ARMSTRONG, JJ., joined.

Leo Bearman, Craig Conley, and Kristine L. Roberts, Memphis, Tennessee; and A. La'verne Edney, Jackson, Mississippi, for the appellants, Allenbrooke Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, LLC, d/b/a Allenbrooke Nursing and Rehabilitation Center; Aurora Cares, LLC; DTD HC, LLC; D&N, LLC; Donald Denz, Individually and as the Sole Member of DTD HC, LLC, and Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer

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of Aurora Cares, LLC; and Norbert Bennett. Individually, and as the Sole Member of D&N, LLC and Chief Executive Officer of Aurora Cares, LLC.

Cameron C. Jehl, Carey L. Acerra, Deena K. Arnold, Memphis, Tennessee; Kenneth L Connor, Aiken, South Carolina; and Stephen Trzcinski, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the appellee, Cindy Hatfield, as Administratrix of Estate of Martha Jane Pierce, Deceased, and on Behalf of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Martha Jane Pierce.



This case involves the treatment and care of a patient, Martha Jane Pierce, while in the care of Allenbrooke Nursing Home, LLC ("Allenbrooke" or "the facility"). When Mrs. Pierce arrived at the facility, she had been diagnosed with several existing ailments, such as high blood pressure, dementia, coronary artery disease, and had undergone a bypass surgery. In May 2009, Mrs. Pierce suffered a stroke, which rendered her largely immobile and reliant on substantial care at the facility. In June 2009, a pressure wound was discovered on Mrs. Pierce's foot.1 Ultimately, the wound became severely infected, and Mrs. Pierce's leg was amputated above the knee on August 7, 2009. Following the operation, Mrs. Pierce returned to the facility. Mrs. Pierce died on October 11, 2009.2

On August 26, 2010, Cindy Hatfield, as Administratrix of Mrs. Pierce's estate and on behalf of her wrongful death beneficiaries (in her administrative capacity, "Plaintiff") filed a complaint against Allenbrooke, Aurora Cares, LLC ("Aurora Cares"), a limited liability company that provided administrative services to Allenbrooke, DTD HC, LLC ("DTD") and D&N, LLC ("D&N"), the limited liability companies that own Allenbrooke, and the members of DTD and D&N, Norbert Bennett and Donald Denz ("the individual defendants," with Aurora Cares, DTD, and D&N, "the non-Allenbrooke Defendants," and all together with Allenbrooke, "Defendants"). The non-Allenbrooke Defendant companies are based in New York and the individual defendants are residents of New York. The complaint alleged that Allenbrooke and the other defendants were all liable for negligence, medical malpractice, breach of contract, violations of the Tennessee Adult Protection Act ("TAPA"), and wrongful death.3 The complaint sought both compensatory and punitive damages against all Defendants.

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The parties litigated several motions in limine; some motions were resolved prior to trial, while the trial court took some motions under advisement pending trial. The trial court also denied several motions to dismiss the non-Allenbrooke Defendants, both on jurisdictional grounds and because the non-Allenbrooke Defendants were allegedly not involved in Mrs. Pierce's care.

A five week jury trial began in July 2016. During juror selection two allegedly improper jurors were placed on the jury despite for cause challenges by Defendants: (1) a juror who stated that he had negative feelings toward nursing homes but could be fair; and (2) a juror that the trial court described as having "special needs" who later told the trial court he was off his "meds" and needed to see his psychiatrist.

Ms. Hatfield, Mrs. Pierce's daughter, testified that Mrs. Pierce lost mobility following a May 2009 stroke. As such, she required considerable care in repositioning and bathing. According to Ms. Hatfield, she was often concerned about the lack of care given to her mother at Allenbrooke and staff at Allenbrooke never informed her of the severity of Mrs. Pierce's wound until Mrs. Pierce's son discovered it in August 2009. Allenbrooke staff documented the wound, however, as early as June 29, 2009. By August 2009, the wound had become so infected that Ms. Hatfield testified that it smelled like "death." Because Mrs. Pierce's flesh had necrotized, amputation above the knee was required. According to Plaintiff's witnesses, Allenbrooke's records showed that Mrs. Pierce did not receive proper care following the discovery of the wound, as consultations with wound specialists and dieticians were improperly delayed, the recommendations from these specialists were not timely or properly implemented, and Mrs. Pierce was not properly receiving prescribed pain medications.

During trial, Plaintiff presented testimony from several former Allenbrooke employees, including four certified nursing assistants ("CNAs"), one licensed practical nurse ("LPN"), and one former staff development coordinator. These witnesses testified as to their recollections of Mrs. Pierce, as well as general conditions in the nursing home.4 Generally, these witnesses testified that because of understaffing at Allenbrooke, residents were often not properly turned or found sitting in their own urine or feces, including Mrs. Pierce. According to the testimony and Allenbrooke's own training videos, these conditions "can burn the skin making it five times more likely to get a pressure ulcer." At times, the CNAs testified that the residents had been sitting in that condition for quite some time, as evidenced by the fact that the bodily fluids had dried to brown rings on the residents' bedding. The witnesses also testified that Allenbrooke was made aware of the understaffing but made efforts to conceal the understaffing during state surveys; the witnesses admitted, however, that the surveys were random and no notice was provided of the dates of the surveys.

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The trial court permitted Plaintiff to ask leading questions of these witnesses on the ground that they were former Allenbrooke employees and also refused to allow Defendants to delve into any bias the witnesses may have had related to whether they were terminated from Allenbrooke. Ms. Hatfield also testified that another doctor who was not involved in the litigation had informed her that she definitely had a lawsuit. In addition, despite an earlier motion in limine, Plaintiff's "summary" expert, Victoria Fierro, was also allegedly allowed to testify to matters other than what had been previously ordered by the trial court. According to Defendants, Ms. Fierro was unqualified to testify as to these issues. Ms. Fierro generally testified that according to Allenbrooke's records, it saved money by not properly staffing its facility to meet resident needs. In contrast, Defendants called their own expert to rebut Ms. Fierro's calculations.

Mr. Denz and Mr. Bennett were also called to discuss their role in Allenbrooke. Mr. Denz and Mr. Bennett admitted that DTD and D&N had no real operations outside of ownership interests in other limited liability companies. Both Mr. Denz and Mr. Bennett insisted, however, they were not involved in the day-to-day operations of either Allenbrooke or Aurora Cares. Mr. Denz and Mr. Bennet maintained that DTD and D&N likewise had no involvement in the operations of Allenbrooke or Aurora Cares. Corporate documents were admitted, however, that showed that the individual defendants had granted themselves "complete, full, exclusive discretion, power, and authority" in the management of Allenbrooke and their respective holding companies. Mr. Denz and Mr. Bennett contended, however, that they never exercised this power. With regard to Allenbrooke specifically, they asserted that Tennessee law requires that the operational power be vested in a licensed administrator. See Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1200-08-06-.04(a). Although Mr. Denz and Mr. Bennett admitted that they were on the governing board of Allenbrooke, they asserted that they never exercised any control over staffing or care issues at Allenbrooke, as those decisions were left to the administrator's discretion. Allenbrooke licensed administrator Bobby Meadows and Aurora Cares President Chance Becnel confirmed that neither Mr. Denz nor Mr. Bennett ever interfered in staffing or...

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