Tuesday, September 3, 2002
Jury Throws Party for Victim After Ruling in Her Favor in Nursing Home Case
By DAVID KLINE
SACRAMENTO (CAPITOL)—The Sacramento Superior Court jury that awarded Annie Mae Ollison $3 million in a nursing home abuse case in July has done another good deed for the same woman. On Aug. 16, the jurors threw a party to celebrate Ollison’s 83rd birthday.
“I feel like I’m flying in the air,” Ollison said. “I can’t believe the blessings I’ve been blessed with.”
Turning to jury foreman Jim Zuber, she said, “I love you all.”
Ollison prevailed in court over the Homestead of Fair Oaks, a nursing home owned by the Eskaton Corp. Jurors found Homestead guilty of neglect and awarded damages for poor care that led to the amputation of both of Ollison’s legs.
Although attorneys for both sides said they expect the award to be reduced by half—largely because of a state law which caps recoveries for medical malpractice—nursing home reform advocates hailed the July 25 verdict as a groundbreaking event. The verdict marked the first time in Sacramento County that a case involving abuse in a nursing home was decided by a jury instead of being settled out of court.
Zuber said jurors threw the pizza party because they admire and respect Ollison, but he said the party should not be taken as a sign that sympathy guided their votes.
“We really did look at the evidence,” Zuber said. “I really believe we kept the sympathy out of it.”
The foreman said jurors frequently reminded each other of their duty to base decisions on the merits of the case, not their feelings about nursing homes or sympathy for the victim.
Robert Lemaster attended the party, even though his time as a juror was cut short. One week before the end of the seven-week trial, Lemaster was involved in an auto accident on his way back to the courthouse after lunch. He was rushed to the hospital, and an alternate juror was moved into his seat.
Lemaster said he agreed with the verdict, and was excited to help Ollison celebrate her birthday.
Friends and family also joined the celebration, along with nursing home rights advocate Carole Herman of the Foundation Aiding the Elderly and Sacramento attorney Wendy York, who represented Ollison.
“Mom has always had the characteristic of drawing people in,” daughter Henrietta Wright said. “Words can’t express how I feel about the jurors—they are wonderful, marvelous, beautiful people.”
York said she has handled several similar cases—about two a year since 1997—and all have been settled out of court, with the details and settlement amounts kept from the public as part of the agreement.
Ollison’s case, too, could have been settled out of court had the two sides been able to reach an agreement.
David Bills, a Sacramento attorney who represented Homestead and its owner, Eskaton Corp., said Ollison offered to settle for $3.5 million and would not entertain offers for less, so Eskaton decided to take its chances in court.
York offered a different version of events, maintaining that it was Eskaton’s inflexibility, not hers, which sent the case to court.
Ollison, who has diabetes, encountered problems three years ago, when her foot was injured by a podiatrist who was removing a corn. The injury got worse, and led to the amputation of part of her foot.
To rehabilitate after surgery, Ollison went to the Homestead at Fair Oaks, expecting to be there three to six weeks before going back to her apartment in a seniors-only community.
Instead, York said, her client was “basically abandoned” by Homestead’s staff.
Wright said she visited her mother often and found her medicated to the point where she didn’t recognize friends and family.
“She was just lethargic all the time,” Wright said. “She just couldn’t respond to anything.”
Wright said she complained to the staff, but got no results. Nor did she get a response when she complained to state regulators.
“But I didn’t want to complain too harshly, because, you know, I didn’t want them to take it out on my mom more than what they already had done,” Wright said.
At one point, Ollison’s condition was so bad that her daughter was calling funeral homes to make arrangements.
“She was over-medicated, not cared for, couldn’t do her physical therapy, didn’t get fed, got dehydrated and developed bed sores on her tail bone and feet,” said Herman, who worked with York and Wright to push state officials to investigate.
The bed sores—preventable when patients are moved and cared for according to state guidelines—escalated to the point where Ollison’s leg had to be amputated. After that surgery, she returned to Homestead, where more bed sores led to the amputation of her other leg.
The state eventually fined Homestead $15,000, and in October 2000, Ollison and her family filed suit against Eskaton, which operates 25 facilities in Northern California, serving approximately 2,400 people.
Bills said there is more to the case than meets the eye. He said Ollison had “very, very substantial medical problems,” including near-blindness, blood clots and other complications from diabetes, when she arrived at Homestead. These conditions, not negligence, could have created the need for amputations, he indicated.
“Really, we had some good medical arguments going into this case,” Bills said. “It’s true, ultimately, that this jury did not accept those arguments, but there were good, strong medical arguments.”
Bills said Ollison is a “delightful woman,” and he believes the jury’s sympathy for her overshadowed his medical arguments.
“One of the problems you have in trying elder-abuse cases is that it’s very difficult to get over the sympathy issue ... and I suspect many people have negative feelings about nursing homes in general, so it’s very difficult to get over that,” Bills said.
Juror Matt Smith, a 19-year-old librarian for the Department of Justice, said sympathy wasn’t the deciding factor.
“It was hard, but I just tried to focus on the evidence,” Smith said.
“During the trial, my mind was leaning more toward the doctors,” Smith added. He said the initial vote was four for Ollison, four for Homestead and four undecided. After six days in the jury room, the panel unanimously sided with Ollison.
With the exception of two days missed due to illness, Ollison was in the courtroom throughout the trial. She said it was tough to sit through the portions where photos of her sore-ridden body were displayed, but said she wasn’t disturbed by the defense attorney’s statements regarding her medical problems and life expectancy.
“When people would say I’ve got a year or two to live, I’d say, ‘God hasn’t told me that yet,’” she said.
Ollison now lives at Pioneer House, an assisted living facility in Sacramento. Wright said her mother receives “beautiful care” and is doing well.
York said that while Homestead still has time to file an appeal, the birthday party can’t be used as grounds for a challenge.
“They listened to the evidence,” York said of the jurors, “and truth prevailed.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company