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Immunity Laws Shield Nursing Homes from Wrongful Death Suits

— June 14, 2024

More than 1,100 COVID-related wrongful death lawsuits have been filed and immunity laws may limit success.

More than four years after COVID-19 first ravaged nursing homes across the country, hundreds of lawsuits alleging negligent care have been dismissed or languished in the courts. Nursing homes are wielding pandemic immunity laws to dodge accountability for the devastating toll the virus took on vulnerable residents.

The impact of these immunity laws on wrongful death suits is significant. According to a recent report, more than 1,100 COVID-related lawsuits have been filed, primarily alleging wrongful death. Some immunity laws have retroactive provisions, which can affect lawsuits filed before the laws were enacted.

In early 2020, as COVID-19 outbreaks made dire headlines, Trever Schapers watched in horror as the virus swept through the Queens nursing home where her 90-year-old father John was a resident. John soon fell ill with COVID, was hospitalized, and died after two weeks on a ventilator in May 2020. When Schapers sued the nursing home for negligence and wrongful death in 2022, a judge dismissed the case, citing a New York state law that granted immunity to medical providers for COVID-related harm.

Schapers is not alone. Across the country, judges have tossed out similar suits, even for nursing homes that were cited for violating safety standards. Families allege homes failed to secure protective gear, mixed COVID-positive patients with others, and brazenly misled them about the severity of outbreaks. But the industry says federal and state officials granted broad legal protections for “good faith” actions during the emergency.

Immunity Laws Shield Nursing Homes from Wrongful Death Suits
Photo by JIUN-JE LIN from Pexels

The legal battles have been particularly contentious in New York, where over 750 negligence and wrongful death cases have been filed, far more than any other jurisdiction. Lawyers for nursing homes argue that even if allegations are true, they don’t rise to the high bar of “gross negligence” needed to override immunity claims.

Some homes that faced heavy fines or were ordered shut down for COVID violations have still claimed immunity, causing anguish for grieving families. Bonnie Richardson, an Oregon attorney, says her clients “wanted to know what happened and to understand why” after their loved one died at a home the state deemed a “serious danger.” But the case settled confidentially.

Many families also believe nursing homes misled them about the spread of COVID within their facilities. Relatives of five patients who died at a Queens home say they were told there was “no COVID-19 in the building,” even as dozens perished.

As the legal battles drag on, the nursing home industry says it is “struggling to recover” from the pandemic, citing labor shortages, inflation, and chronic underfunding. Industry groups argue caregivers acted in “good faith” with limited resources.

But patient advocates say immunity laws “reward nursing homes for bad care” and warn against enacting policies that bar grieving families from the courthouse. Bill Hammond of the Empire Center for Public Policy says policymakers should focus on better strategies to protect patients from infectious outbreaks, rather than leaving liability to the courts.

With no comprehensive accounting of lawsuit outcomes, the full toll of the pandemic on nursing home residents and their families remains unclear. But the legal fights underscore the industry’s determination to avoid accountability, even as COVID-19 claimed the lives of over 172,000 nursing home residents nationwide.


Nursing Homes Wield Pandemic Immunity Laws To Duck Wrongful Death Suits

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Nursing Homes Seek Immunity Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Alarming Advocates

Why Nursing Homes’ COVID-19 Legal Shields May Interfere With Other Cases

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