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Judge denies Buffalo Center nursing home new trial in wrongful death suit

A Winnebago County District Court judge denied a Buffalo Center nursing home a new trial in the death of a woman in its care in 2017.

The family of Darlene Weaver, a Timely Mission Nursing Home resident who died in June 2017, filed a lawsuit in Winnebago County District Court against the facility in November the same year, charging the facility with wrongful death, negligence, abuse and breach of contract. 

Timely Mission Nursing Home

The Timely Mission Nursing Home in Buffalo Center.  

In June, a jury handed the family a $6 million award. In October, the nursing home filed a motion asking the court for a "judgment notwithstanding the verdict" and a new trial.

Last week, Winnebago District Court Judge James Drew denied both requests. Under court rules, any party may ask for a judgment – even if the verdict goes against them or if there is no verdict – if the opposing party failed present a complete claim and the motion made proves that fact, or if the party asked for, but didn't receive, a directed verdict. A directed verdict can be made by a trial judge after determining there is no legally sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to reach a different conclusion.

The purpose of the rule is to allow a court to correct any error in not issuing a directed verdict, Drew wrote in his ruling. Since ample evidence was produced during the trial supporting the family's claims that Weaver was the victim of negligence and that they deserved to receive punitive damages, Drew wrote, the motion was denied.

As for the motion for a new trial, Drew turned aside the nursing home's same arguments as those used in its request for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Drew also denied arguments that he erred in instructing the jury, improperly admitted evidence regarding alleged physical and verbal abuse, improperly excluded evidence regarding unpaid residency fees, that the family's attorney committed misconduct during closing arguments and that the award grant was excessive.

In their suit, Weaver's family members alleged the nursing home failed to transfer her in a timely manner to a higher level of care when her symptoms required it. Timely Mission also did not notify Weaver's doctor or her family of her change in condition and failed to monitor her appropriately to avoid injury, according to the suit.

In its response, Timely Mission denied responsibility for Weaver's death.

The jury's findings were based on several questions it was required to answer, including whether it believed Timely Mission was negligent (yes), and if yes, was the negligence a cause of damage to Darlene Weaver (yes).

The jury was also asked to name amounts of damage sustained by Weaver and her family, and it awarded $2 million for Weaver's pain and suffering, $1 million for her loss of full mind and body and $500,000 each to Weaver's two children for the loss of their relationship with Weaver. The jury also found that Timely Mission's conduct represented a "wanton and willful disregard" for Weaver's rights, and that its conduct was aimed specifically at Weaver. It awarded Weaver's family an additional $2 million in punitive damages as a result, according to court documents.

The nursing home has been scrutinized for its care in the past.

In August 2019, the family of Virginia Olthoff filed a wrongful death suit against the facility after Olthoff died in February 2018. That case is slated to go to trial in January.

Olthoff's death, as well as the death of another unidentified Timely Mission resident on the same day, led to a $77,462 federal fine against the facility in August 2018. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services fined Timely Mission $57,960 due to a September 2017 complaint-based inspection by state officials that revealed a staff member yelled and swore at residents, refused to assist them, and yanked on them by their arms and legs. Since then, the facility has been fined two additional times, once in June 2018 for $50,351 and again in September 2020 for $6,500.

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