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Hitesman v. Bridgeway, Inc. – Court Rules Against Nursing Home Whistleblower

In a case that sets a troubling precedent, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against a nursing home employee claiming retaliation after he filed complaints with state health care officials alleging improper patient care.

Fort Lauderdale nursing home abuse attorneys know that there are state and federal protections intended to shield whistleblowers who come forward to report the abuse of elderly and disabled residents, as well as statutes that encourage workers to report conditions that may lead to infection.

Florida Statute 448.102 bars employers from retaliating against a worker who discloses violations of law, rule or regulation or who provides testimony or an official inquiry. It also provides protection for workers who object to or refuse to participate in any activity, policy or practice of the employer that is in violation of law, rule or regulation.

Still, it seems the system failed the plaintiff in Hitesman v. Bridgeway, Inc..

According to court records, the worker in this case was made to sign a confidentiality agreement at the time he was hired, indicating he would not disclose confidential patient information and acknowledging potential termination if he did. He soon was promoted to shift supervisor and oversaw nursing staff across the facility. In this role, he documented admissions, hospitalizations, worker absences, maintenance issues, etc.

In 2008, he logged that a number of staffers had missed work due to respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, and he noted a prevalence of similar conditions among patients. He complained to the facility’s management regarding the rate of infection. Feeling not enough was done, he then reported those concerns to government agencies and the press. In doing so, he disclosed patient records that were partially redacted to a television reporter.

Soon after, the nursing home terminated his employment based on the contention that he violated the confidentiality agreement he’d previously signed.

The former worker sued, alleging violation of state law barring retaliatory action against workers who report on or object to actions they believe constitute improper quality of patient care.

The trial court granted a partial summary judgment in the ex-worker’s favor, finding the employee had a reasonable belief the facility had provided improper patient care.
The remaining issues went to trial, with a jury finding the facility was liable under the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act. However, no damages were awarded.

Upon appeal, the appellate court reversed the finding of liability against the employer, determining the ruling had relied heavily on the nursing home’s employee handbook and the American Nursing Home Association’s Code of Ethics – neither of which offered a measure of adequate patient care or expressed a clear mandate of public policy.

This decision was affirmed by the state supreme court.

Rulings in this vein are troubling because we worry workers with legitimate concerns about the health and safety of patients and fellow staffers won’t come forward. This makes it all the more imperative that family members and loved ones remain ever-vigilant.

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

Additional Resources:
Hitesman v. Bridgeway, Inc., June 16, 2014, New Jersey Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Nutrition for the Elderly: Injury and Disease Prevention, May 30, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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