The Arkansas Court of Appeals (“Arkansas Appellate Court”) held in its opinion dated September 1, 2021 involving a claim under the Arkansas nursing home Resident’s Rights Act: “the circuit court should apply the statute as it operated prior to the 2013 amendment.”
Carolyn Cauffiel was a resident of Heartland from February 29 to July 22, 2012. On the morning of July 22, Ms. Cauffiel was rushed to the hospital in extreme respiratory distress and passed away a few days later. Terry Cauffiel was named administrator of her estate and filed suit against Heartland alleging negligence, medical malpractice, and violations of Ms. Cauffiel’s statutory rights as a resident of a long-term-care facility.
The Arkansas nursing home wrongful death jury trial occurred in May 2018. Mr. Cauffiel presented expert testimony from a nurse and a physician that breaches of the professional standard of care caused Ms. Cauffiel to suffer medical injuries and death. Mr. Cauffiel also testified and presented the testimony of other lay witnesses describing the terrible conditions in the nursing home and illustrated how Ms. Cauffiel and other residents were routinely ignored, mocked, left to sit in their own filth and waste, and suffered insults to their basic humanity and dignity.
At the close of the plaintiff’s case, Heartland requested a directed verdict on the resident’s-rights claim, arguing that the legislature eliminated the independent cause of action via a subsequent amendment to the Resident’s-Rights Act and that the claim was duplicative of the negligence/medical-malpractice claim. The motion was denied but was renewed after the close of Heartland’s case, and after several rounds of arguments on the motion, the circuit court directed a verdict on the resident’s-rights claim because it said the jury would not be able to distinguish between damages attributable to medical malpractice and damages attributable to violations of the Resident’s Rights Act.
Resident’s Rights Act
The Resident’s Rights Act guarantees individuals living in nursing homes (1) the right to be free from mental and physical abuse; and (2) the right to be treated courteously, fairly, and with the fullest measure of dignity. Ark. Code Ann. § 20-10-1204 (a)(14), (21) (Repl. 2018). At the time Cauffiel’s claims accrued in 2012 and when the lawsuit was filed in 2013, the Resident’s Rights Act allowed for any resident injured by a deprivation of the rights listed above to “bring a cause of action against any licensee responsible for the deprivation or infringement.” Ark. Code Ann. § 20-10-1209(a) (Repl. 2005).
In 2013, the Resident’s Rights Act was amended by Act 1196 to completely eliminate this claim. In its current form, nursing-home residents may no longer recover for violations of the Resident’s Rights Act. Instead, they have only one cause of action “under § 16-114-201 et seq.,” the Medical Malpractice Act. Ark. Code Ann. § 20-10-1209(a)(1) (Repl. 2018). The current version makes it clear that a deprivation or infringement of a resident’s rights now “does not itself create an additional cause of action.” § 20-10-1209(d)(1). Rather than a standalone claim with damages that do not depend on a showing of medical negligence, violations of the Resident’s Rights Act are now only considered “evidence of negligence” as part of a medical-malpractice claim. § 20-10-1209(d)(2).
Arkansas Appellate Court Opinion
The Arkansas Appellate Court stated: “The 2013 amendment to the Resident’s Rights Act is silent on whether it may be applied retroactively … Cauffiel contends that the 2013 amendment cannot be applied retroactively, and on this point we agree. “It is presumed that all legislation is intended to apply prospectively only” … If the legislature intends for a statute to apply retroactively, it must be “stated or implied so clearly and unequivocally as to eliminate any doubt” … “Any doubt is resolved against retroactivity and in favor of prospectivity only” … In addition, the rules against retroactive application “apply especially with reference to amendatory acts.””
The Arkansas Appellate Court held: “The strict rule of construction [prohibiting retroactive application of new legislation] does not apply to remedial statutes which do not disturb vested rights, or create new obligations, but only supply a new or more appropriate remedy to enforce an existing right or obligation” … The 2013 amendment to the Resident’s Rights Act cannot, therefore, be viewed as merely remedial in nature. Were we to apply it to Cauffiel’s claim, it would clearly “disturb vested rights” and “create new obligations,” meaning that it is a substantive change, not a remedial one. The Arkansas General Assembly could have included language in the 2013 amendment stating that it should be applied retroactively. The legislature chose not to include such language, and because the change is more than merely remedial or procedural, this court may not choose to apply it retroactively when the legislature has not set that policy.”
Source Cauffiel v. Progressive Eldercare Services-Saline, Inc., d/b/a Heartland Rehabilitation and Care Center, 2021 Ark. App. 314.
If you or a loved one suffered injuries (or worse) while a resident of a nursing home in Arkansas or in another U.S. state due to a nursing home fall, nursing home aspiration, nursing home neglect, nursing home negligence, nursing home abuse, nursing home under-staffing, or the nursing home failing to properly care for a vulnerable adult, you should promptly find an Arkansas nursing home claim lawyer, or a nursing home claim lawyer in your state, who may investigate your nursing home claim for you and file a nursing home claim on your behalf or behalf of your loved one, if appropriate.
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