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Gregory v. Cott – Aggression in Alzheimer Patients

Aggression is an unfortunate but well-known side effect for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

A recent California Supreme Court case of Gregory v. Cott held home health care workers, like those in nursing homes, cannot sue dementia patients for injuries inflicted upon workers when aggression is an inherent part of the disease (particularly in later stages). However, the scenario is different for nursing home patients harmed by other aggressive patients.

Our Broward County nursing home abuse lawyers know the reason for this difference is simple. While a nursing home staffer or home health care giver may assume the risk of working in potentially hazardous conditions, residents of nursing homes have the right to expect they will be safe where they live. When administrators and health care providers fail to anticipate the aggression of an Alzheimer’s patient or put appropriate protections in place, a worker may have the option of securing workers’ compensation for injuries sustained. Patients and their representatives, however, may sue the nursing home on various theories of negligence.

There is a general understanding that Alzheimer’s patients don’t mean to cause harm. It is generally rooted in confusion, fear, anger or pain that they may not be able to effectively communicate. Therefore, they may resort to kicking, biting, throwing or shoving.

Nursing home staffers must be trained on how to deescalate the anxiety and aggression of a dementia patient. If workers aren’t properly trained or the patient is not properly supervised, particularly if he is known for aggressive tendencies, this is negligence on the part of the facility’s administration. It is a breach of the duty the facility owed to other patients. Further, if a patient suffers severe harm as a result of this breach, the injured party is entitled to be compensated for damages.

The Gregory case is a reminder of the fact that this will continue to be a growing issue in the coming years. As the state supreme court noted, “We encourage the Legislature to focus its attention on problems associated with Alzheimer’s caregiving, as the number of (people) afflicted with this disease can only be expected to grow in the coming years.” The court encouraged enhanced insurance benefits and training requirements for those exposed to risk of injury.

According to court records in the case, a home health worker was hired through an agency by the husband of an 85-year-old longtime suffer of Alzheimer’s disease to help care for her. She was trained to care for them, and knew these individuals could at times be violent, the court noted. The husband had informed the worker his wife was known to bite, scratch, kick an flail.

The worker was responsible for bathing, dressing, transporting and supervising the ill woman, as well as doing some light housework.

One day, while the husband was out, the caregiver was washing dishes while the patient sat at the table. While the worker was washing a long, sharp knife, the patient approached from behind, bumped into her and reached toward the sink. The worker attempted to restraint the patient, and in doing so, dropped the knife and cut her wrist, causing her to suffer recurring pain and a loss of sensation in several fingers.

In addition to receiving workers’ compensation, the worker sued the woman and her husband for negligence, premises liability and battery.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the defense, the appellate court affirmed and the state supreme court affirmed. The court noted the so-called “firefighter’s rule” which precludes workers like firefighters and police from suing members of the public for the very conduct that makes their work necessary. This is part of the assumption of risk doctrine.

Further, the court noted that to impose liability on dementia patients and their families for engaging in conduct that is an inherent part of the disease would encourage increased levels of institutionalization.

But again, other nursing home patients have the right to expect they will be kept safe by their caretakers. While patients may not owe a duty to those who care for them, caretakers most certainly owe a duty of care to patients.

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

Additional Resources:
Gregory v. Cott, Aug. 4, 2014, California Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Harmon v. Star Valley Med. Ctr. – Nursing Home Negligence Claim Arises From Fatal Fall, Aug. 2, 2014, Broward Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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