CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- A limit would be placed on the amount nursing homes would be forced to pay if sued under a bill passed by the West Virginia Senate Wednesday.
The measure explicitly includes nursing homes under the protections of a 2003 law that places limits on medical malpractice suits. The Medical Professionals Liability Act places a $500,000 cap on the non-economic damages for which health care providers are liable.
The 2003 law defined nursing homes as health care facilities, but left it somewhat ambiguous as to whether they were also protected as providers.
Sen. Evan Jenkins, one of the bill's sponsors and the director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, said that Legislature always meant for the liability act to apply to nursing homes, but sometimes clarifications were necessary.
"This bill, its only purpose was to make it clear that the Legislature had every intent to apply the MPLA to allegations of medical negligence against a nursing home," Jenkins said. "We're trying to make it clear."
In a high profile 2011 case, a jury found Heartland nursing home in Charleston liable for $90 million in damages for the dehydration death of an 87-year old woman. Wednesday's bill would not apply retroactively to that case, but even if it did, the vast majority of the $90 million verdict would be unaffected.
Of the total amount awarded, approximately $80 million was in punitive damages, which are not affected by the liability act. The bulk of the remaining $10 million was awarded for non-medical negligence. The judge ruled, in essence, that because the woman died from dehydration, it was not a doctor or medical error and was not covered by the liability law. The case is being appealed and is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Sen. Truman Chafin, a prominent trial lawyer, was the only member of the Senate to vote against the bill.
"I don't think nursing homes should ever be covered under the MPLA," Chafin said. "They're not doctors."
The West Virginia Association for Justice, a group representing plaintiffs' lawyers, called the bill unnecessary.
"Nursing homes are already identified as medical providers under West Virginia's existing Medical Professional Liability Act," said Scott Blass, the group's president. "This is an attempt by nursing homes to try to further limit their liability when their patients are harmed."
Wednesday was the second consecutive day that the Senate passed a bill limiting the power of injured parties to sue. On Tuesday the Senate passed a bill that limits the ability of all trespassers to sue property owners if they are injured.