A nursing home negligence jury in Virginia recently awarded $1.45 million to the estate of a man whose clothing caught on fire while he was allowed to smoke unsupervised at a Virginia nursing home. The incident occurred on June 3, 2011, when the wheelchair-bound nursing home resident’s sweatpants caught fire while he was smoking a cigarette, causing the man to suffer serious and painful second- and third-degree burns to his body (the man died at the age of 49 in June 2013, from unrelated medical issues).
The nursing home negligence claim was filed in November 2011 and alleged that a burning ember from the man’s lit cigarette most likely fell to the mulch under or near his wheelchair, thereby causing a fire that spread to the man’s sweatpants. The lawsuit noted that the man had both physical and mental impairments from his medications, he had poor safety awareness, and that his medical history included strokes, back problems, arm paralysis, and leg numbness.
The defendant nursing home argued that the man may have intentionally started the fire with a lighter in an effort to commit suicide, citing the man’s history of alleged suicide attempts and mental health issues. The defendant also noted that the sweatpants the man was wearing had to comply with federal flammability standards, making it more likely that the quick-spreading fire was due to an intentional act as opposed to a careless act of an ember falling from a lit cigarette.
The $1.45 million jury verdict included $1.28 million in compensatory damages and $170,000 in interest (the man’s medical expenses related to his injuries from the fire were in excess of $600,000 and included treatment in a hospital’s intensive care unit), which will be distributed to his close family members. The defendant nursing home is presently evaluating whether to file an appeal of the verdict.
Of note: the defendant nursing home had been designated as a “Special Focus Facility” by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services due to its history of providing substandard care – it has an overall federal rating of “much below average.”
For those nursing homes that permit their residents to smoke, there are often precautions that are implemented to minimize the risk to all residents, including but not limited to making sure that there is a designated area adjacent to the nursing home where residents who have been evaluated and allowed smoking privileges may smoke cigarettes while under close supervision, making sure that the designated smoking area is equipped with appropriate ashtrays and fire-fighting/rescue equipment, making sure that residents who are allowed to smoke are fully supervised during the entire time they are in the designated smoking area, making sure that residents who smoke wear a fire-resistant blanket or smock while smoking, maintaining all smoking items (including cigarettes, matches, and lighters) in a locked room or in a locked cabinet at the nurses’ station while simultaneously not permitting residents to have possession or access to smoking materials, making sure that all visitors are informed that residents are not permitted to have smoking materials in their rooms and to not give smoking materials directly to residents, etc.
While it may be much easier and safer for nursing homes to simply prohibit any smoking in or near its facilities, nursing homes must take into consideration the highly addictive nature of smoking and that some of their residents may be life-long smokers for whom it would be impractical to prohibit smoking.
Nonetheless, if you or a loved one were injured as a result of smoking in a nursing home or as a result of other nursing home negligence, you should promptly contact a local nursing home attorney in your state who may investigate your nursing home claim for you and represent you in a claim against a nursing home, if appropriate.
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