The recent case of Community Care Center of Aberdeen v. Barrentine is, at its core, an employment dispute. But the matter, reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court recently, holds relevance for those who care about the well-being of elderly, vulnerable residents of nursing homes because it involves someone who reportedly was willing to speak up about abuse.
As we know all too well, that courage is rare, especially for someone who is employed by the facility potentially liable for such wrong-doing and the resulting injuries.
One study by the General Accounting Office revealed that physical and sexual abuse of nursing home residents is not promptly reported to local law enforcement authorities and state regulators. And even when it is, it’s rarely prosecuted. Not only are patients and sometimes even relatives reluctant to report abuse, but nursing home managers are reluctant because they fear adverse publicity and legal liability. Employees are fearful of losing their jobs.
It doesn’t help matters that there is rarely ever a penalty incurred by nursing homes who fail to report abuse. So in a sense, there is an incentive to keep quiet.
And that’s what makes the Barrentine case worthy of note. On one hand, it validates employees’ worst fears about coming forward with evidence of nursing home abuse or neglect: That they will be fired. However, as the state high court agreed to allow the former employee’s case against the nursing home to move forward, it gives hope that such actions will not be without penalty or consequence.
According to court records, plaintiff was employed as a nurse at the nursing home when, in 2011, she reported suspected nursing home abuse of a patient to the state ombudsman and also to the facility’s corporate compliance officer.
Soon after, she was fired from her job.
In 2012, she filed a lawsuit alleging she was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy because the termination was the result of her reporting abuse of a patient. Employer filed motion for summary judgment, arguing the claim was based on an unwritten employment contract, and thus was barred by the state’s one-year statute of limitations on such claims.
Plaintiff retorted her lawsuit was actually a tort, and as such, was subject to a three-year statute of limitation, which she was well within.
In its analysis, the state supreme court noted that while Mississippi is an employment at-will state – meaning workers can be fired for just about any reason or no reason at all – there are narrow exceptions as they pertain to public policy. One of those is reporting illegal acts of an employer, so long as that person did not participate in those illegal acts.
Abuse of the elderly is unquestionably illegal.
Thus, the state’s high court court ruled this was a tort-based claim and should be allowed to proceed under the three-year statute of limitations. It wasn’t determined whether the termination was wrongful, only that plaintiff will have an opportunity to make her case at trial.
Our experienced nursing home abuse lawyers know what a difficult step that must have been for that employee, and we commend any worker who speaks up for those who cannot do so on their own – even at their own risk.
Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Community Care Center of Aberdeen v. Barrentine , March 26, 2015, Mississippi Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Report: Nursing Home Regulators Influenced by Lobbyists, March 19, 2015, Broward County Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog