Elder Care Alert: California’s Patients’ Rights Statute Limits Statutory Damages to a Maximum of $500, Not $500 Per Violation

In Lemaire v. Covenant Care California, LLC, 2015 WL 340677, the Second District Court of Appeal held that while patients may sue nursing facilities under California Health & Safety Code §1430(b) for violation of federal and state regulations requiring complete and accurate health care records, the statutory damages may not exceed $500 per action. The Court also held that the limited statutory damages required a re-evaluation of the attorneys’ fee award.

In 2010, Laura Clausen suffered a stroke and was admitted to Covenant Care California, LLC’s (“Covenant”) skilled nursing facility. After she died, her daughter, Lemaire, filed an action against Covenant for wrongful death, elder abuse, and violation of patients’ rights under California Health & Safety Code §1430(b). In the patients’ rights cause of action, Lemaire alleged six violations of the California Code of Regulations relating to Covenant’s violation of her mother’s right “to have nurses’ notes be clear and legible, dated and signed … including narratives [on] how a patient responds, eats, drinks, looks, feels, and reacts.” (California Code of Regulations, Title 22, §72547(a)(5).) Lemaire requested statutory damages of $500 per violation per day. Covenant argued Lemaire was only entitled to damages up to $500 total.

The jury found against Lemaire on her wrongful death and elder abuse causes of action, but found in favor of Lemaire on her section 1430(b) cause of action. The jury awarded $500 statutory damages for each violation and the trial court entered judgment against Covenant for $270,000. The trial court also awarded Lemaire $841,842.00 in attorneys’ fees and $26,327.45 in costs. Covenant appealed.

The Court of Appeal first held that the statutory language of Health & Safety Code §1430(b) permits a patient to maintain a private right of action against nursing facilities for violations of federal and state regulations requiring complete and accurate health care records. The Court then determined that the language in section 1430(b) that a “licensee shall be liable for up to five hundred dollars ($500), and for costs and attorney fees, and may be enjoined from permitting the violation to continue” means a plaintiff is entitled to a maximum of $500 in statutory damages and not $500 per violation. Accordingly, the Court reversed the statutory damages award of $270,000 as it exceeded $500. The Court also vacated the attorneys’ fee and cost awards and remanded the issue for redetermination based on the significantly reduced statutory damages award.

This ruling is favorable for nursing facilities because plaintiffs will be limited to a maximum of $500 in statutory damages, which can significantly limit the corresponding amount of attorneys’ fees and costs awarded.

This document is intended to provide you with information about elder care law related developments. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions.

February 26, 2015