Probably no U.S. state except New York has seen nursing facilities for the aged hit harder by the Covid-19 crisis than New Jersey. To date, over 7,000 Garden State nursing home residents have succumbed to the virus.
Back in the spring of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and the state legislature acted quickly to grant broad civil and criminal immunity to health care facilities treating Covid patients, including hospitals and nursing homes.
The rationale at the time was that health care providers acting in good faith and according to prevailing safety protocols should not face crushing financial liability for Covid deaths that may not be their fault. However, as this blog has reported before, many nursing homes around the country and in New Jersey already had a poor track record of protecting elderly patients. Understaffing and other corner-cutting measures by for-profit owners left patients at risk, and elder advocates say these subpar facilities should not be allowed to now escape responsibility for preventable deaths.
Unprecedented Emergency Spurred Unusual Measures
Nursing and long-term care industry officials welcomed the government protections in the face of an unprecedented emergency. But critics argue the industry had no excuse to be unprepared for the pandemic.
Further, the immunity provisions did not bar all Covid-related claims; they did not protect caregivers and facilities in the case of gross negligence or willful misconduct, for instance.
Several horrific and highly publicized cases have spawned recent lawsuits accusing New Jersey long-term care facilities of fraud among other claims. Authorities discovered 17 bodies in April at a morgue inside an Andover Subacute Rehabilitation Center in Andover. The Covid-related deaths are under investigation by the state. Now some of the victims’ relatives have filed suit against the home’s owners and unnamed staff members. One of the Andover facilities is ranked only one star out of five by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), partly for its allegedly lax infection-control and safety measures.
The suit alleges that Andover failed to implement corrective measures recommended by CMS that might have mitigated the devastation of the pandemic, and plaintiffs are attempting to gain class-action status for the other Covid victims at the facility. Among the claims is that staff failed to keep families informed about the whereabouts of their departed loved ones’ remains for several weeks after their deaths.
One of Andover’s owners, in a statement, countered that the facility did take “proactive steps” in the early days of the pandemic to confront the crisis and by June 2, it was in “substantial compliance” with applicable standards of care.
Veterans Memorial Home in Menlo Park is also the subject of a Covid-related wrongful death suit, according to NJ.com. Lawyers for the plaintiffs claim that nursing staff there were instructed not to wear masks or gloves.
A Disaster Waiting To Happen?
The substandard status quo documented in many state nursing homes predating the pandemic created a perfect storm for spread of the deadly disease. Pre-existing understaffing levels exacerbated shortages of protective equipment and ventilators. Advocates for the elderly argue that such facilities should not be given a free pass despite how well-intentioned the state-enacted liability immunity was. Even some state lawmakers now say the legislation went too far in protecting bad facilities. There is an effort underway to conduct legislative hearings on the Covid disaster in some of the state’s homes.
On Sept. 16, Gov. Murphy signed a series of bills aimed at improving nursing home care and safety.
However, as a result of the initial rush to protect all health care providers, families attempting to seek justice for loved ones lost to Covid-19 must show fraud, deliberate misconduct, or recklessness on the part of nursing care providers, which can be a high bar.
Contact a Bergen County Nursing Home Abuse & Neglect Lawyer
If your elder loved one has experienced a preventable injury or death in a New Jersey nursing home, Aretsky Law Group P.C. has a proven track record of successfully holding negligent operators accountable. Contact our law office today for a confidential consultation.