Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Nursing Homes Wield Pandemic Immunity Laws To Duck Wrongful Death Suits

Screenshot 2024-05-16 at 11.43.09 AMAs the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing homes emerged as battlegrounds where negligence and tragedy intersected. In a heart-wrenching tale of loss and legal complexity, the story of Trever Schapers' fight for justice highlights the challenges families face when seeking accountability for their loved ones' deaths in nursing homes.

In February 2020, Trever Schapers watched her father, John Schapers, celebrate his 90th birthday at a care center in New York City. Little did she know that this joyous occasion would be overshadowed by grief and legal hurdles. John contracted COVID-19 in the facility and tragically passed away after battling the virus on a ventilator for two weeks. When Trever sued the nursing home for negligence and wrongful death, she faced a harsh reality — a New York state law passed hastily during the pandemic granted immunity to medical providers for COVID-related harm or damages.

Trever's case is not unique. Across the United States, hundreds of families have confronted similar legal roadblocks in their quest for justice. Nursing homes, some previously penalized for safety violations, have shielded themselves from lawsuits, claiming immunity under state and federal laws enacted during the crisis.

While nursing homes initially cited legal protections like the federal PREP Act, courts have grappled with the extent of immunity granted to these facilities. Families allege a range of failures, from inadequate protective measures to deliberate misinformation about COVID-19 outbreaks within facilities. Despite these allegations, legal battles have often led to dismissals, settlements shrouded in secrecy, or protracted delays, leaving families in anguish.

New York stands out as a focal point of legal disputes over nursing home immunity. The state, hit hard by COVID-19 early in the pandemic, has seen a surge in negligence and wrongful death cases against nursing homes. Yet, the legal terrain remains murky, with conflicting interpretations of immunity laws and legislative interventions further complicating matters.

Moreover, nursing homes have invoked immunity not only for COVID-19-related incidents but also for unrelated issues such as falls or neglect, sparking outrage from patient advocates.

Amidst the legal wrangling, the toll of the pandemic on nursing home residents has been staggering, with over 172,000 recorded deaths in these facilities. While the industry argues for limited liability protections, patient advocates emphasize the importance of accountability and transparency in ensuring quality care for vulnerable populations.

As the legal battles continue, it's evident that the pursuit of justice for nursing home residents and their families is far from over. While legal frameworks may offer temporary reprieve to nursing homes, the quest for accountability remains a moral imperative, ensuring that tragedies like those witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic are not forgotten or repeated in the future.

For more information see Fred Schulte "Nursing Homes Wield Pandemic Immunity Laws To Duck Wrongful Death Suits", KFF Health News, May 14, 2024. 

Special thanks to Lewis Saret (Attorney, Washington, D.C.) for bringing this article to my attention.  


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