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Can a Nursing Home Have Sovereign Immunity in Kentucky?

kentucky-capital-building-538296-mIn a recent unpublished decision, an appellate court considered a nursing home corporation and health services company’s appeal after the lower court denied their motion for summary judgment. The motion for summary judgment argued the defendants were protected by sovereign immunity in connection with the death of an elderly woman, Mary Stone.

The case arose when the elderly woman died four months after discharge from the defendants’ nursing home. The woman’s estate sued the defendants for negligent care of the decedent. The nursing home defendants asserted that they were created in order to act as an agency and instrumentality of the county in offering services to the local elderly population.

After discovery, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The defendants asserted that both of them were immune from suit because they grew out of the county government and performed an integral government function. In their view, this qualified them for sovereign immunity in Kentucky.

In response to the summary judgment motion, the estate argued the county did not directly control the nursing home. The nursing home was actually controlled on a daily basis by a health services system. The estate further argued that the service provided by the nursing home was not integral to state government and wasn’t eligible for government immunity.

The trial court denied the defendants’ motion. The defendants asked the court to alter, amend or vacate the decision on the summary judgment. It also argued that the findings drafted by the plaintiff’s lawyer and signed by the judge included factually unsupported argumentative statements. The trial court did not grant the request and the defendants appealed.

Sovereign immunity allows the defendant who has it to be free of liability as well as the act of defending the lawsuit. The appellate court explained that sovereign immunity applies to the state itself, as well as each of a state’s counties, but that the rules about who it applies to have changed frequently. It is harder to figure out who gets sovereign immunity when quasi-governmental entities or lower-level departments are involved.

The Kentucky Supreme Court has developed a two-prong test for some cases. The factors to consider are whether the entity was under the direction and control of the central State government and whether it was supported by finances disbursed according to the State Treasury‘s authority. This test has been cited a number of times and has been the standard until a more recent case.

In the more recent case, the Kentucky Supreme Court shifted away from this test. It found that the first issue is whether the defendant entity was born from an immune parent and whether the entity serves an integral government function. The appellate court explained that in this case the defendants’ Articles of Incorporation described an ongoing bond between the county government and the defendant’s management. The defendant claimed they were created for the purpose of being an agency and instrumentality of the County. In his case, the Board of Directors is the county fiscal court and the judge executive.

Both entities were required to leave any assets to the county government if they were dissolved. The appellate court found that it was clear the entity was born of an immune parent. With regard to the issue of governmental functions, the court found they served an integral governmental function, unless they waived their immunity. Waiver is possible using express language or where no other interpretation of a waiver-related text is possible. The estate agued that a particular code section granting counties the power to buy liability insurance for county hospitals operated as a waiver. The statute permits a suit to be brought against those hospitals that is solely enforceable against the hospital’s liability insurance carrier.

The appellate court found that the common purpose of the statutes to provide health care to citizens allowed for a waiver of immunity in this case such that a judgment could be obtained, solely enforceable against the liability insurance carrier. If a loved one is hurt or killed at a nursing home, you should consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible to determine whether any relief is available to you.

The knowledgeable Kentucky personal injury attorneys of English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley may be able to help. Contact us at 270-781-6500 or via our online form.

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