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Court: Private Nursing Home Cannot Claim Sovereign Immunity

Recently, a unique case came before the Supreme Court in Connecticut regarding whether a private nursing home, which served both patients in state care and parolees from prison, would be shielded by the protections of sovereign immunity.

The case stemmed from a dispute between the owners of the private facility and the local municipality in which it operated. The city had tried to block the opening of the facility, but was unsuccessful when a superior court judge blocked the town’s request for injunction and further dismissed the lawsuit. The home started admitting patients in the spring of 2013, but the town filed an appeal directly with the state supreme court, bypassing the appellate court.

Nursing home administrators argued that because they were chosen to carry out certain functions mandated by the state (i.e., caring for state wards who are mentally ill as well as state prison parolees), the center should be immune from any local interference.

This would include immunization from:

  • Payment of property taxes
  • Restrictions on zoning
  • Civil lawsuits

Justices unanimously in a 24-page opinion disagreed with the private facility’s argument. The court underscored the position that an extension of a state’s sovereign immunity to a separate for-profit, private entity should be “a rare occurrence.” The court did not find the facts in this case supportive of administrators’ position.

While states are free to take varying positions on issues like this, this ruling was an important one because often, justices do take into account precedent established in other jurisdictions on matters of first impression.

Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that dates back centuries, and it basically insulates the government from lawsuits or liability except in cases where the government makes itself eligible to be sued. This immunity can be especially challenging to overcome, and it often protects federal and state agencies and officials from liability – even when negligence results in serious injury.

Even when lawsuits are allowable, recovery of damages against the government is often limited to a capped amount.

So to extend this kind of protection to a nursing home facility, thus potentially shielding it from liability for nursing home abuse, negligence and neglect, would have been a major loss for potential plaintiffs.

The dispute arose shortly after the state tapped the center to provide skilled nursing care services to qualified prisoners and state mental patients. A subsidiary of the firm purchased the nursing home and a second manages and operates it per state contract.

But many in the town were unhappy with the move, as they did not want “a prison in our backyard.” The center was built in a heavily residential neighborhood.

The bigger issue now is the center has racked up $150,000 in back property taxes. That figure includes penalties and interest. Armed with the state supreme court decision, town officials are hoping to collect on that bill.

The decision on the issue of sovereign immunity for centers like this was especially important given the increasing privatization of skilled nursing care services for elderly patients and those with dementia.

To protect these centers from the potential for litigation is to free them from accountability – something wholly unacceptable when we’re talking about providing care to some of our most the most vulnerable in our population.

Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Rocky Hill Nursing Home Subject to Local Rules, Supreme Court Says, Dec. 26, 2014, By Dave Drury, The Hartford Courant

More Blog Entries:

Florida Nursing Homes Face Wrongful Death Lawsuits, Jan. 12, 2015, Deerfield Beach Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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