PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — A wrongful death lawsuit could be headed to the United States Supreme Court.
It’s against Prairie Village care facility Brighton Gardens. You may remember there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the height of the pandemic, infecting more than 100 residents and killing 25 people.
The 95-page brief is currently in the court system in Washington D.C. with an appeal, waiting to be heard by a lower court. The victim’s lawyer, Jonathan Steele with Steele Chaffee, LLC., said her family hopes this lawsuit can change how cases are handled nationwide.
“It was really a ticking time bomb,” Steele said.
Across the nation in 2020, COVID-19 rapidly spread through nursing homes — one of them being Brighton Gardens. In May 2020, Johnson County’s health department spoke out about the facility’s handling of the pandemic.
“Due to the apparent inability of Brighton Gardens to sufficiently and effectively control and manage the situation, immediate action is required by its national owner to avoid further spread,” the agency said in a statement.
“We’re committed to coming to work every single day and expose, frankly, the fraud that goes on from the owners and operators of these nursing homes,” Steele said.
Steele is representing Lane Hatcher, the daughter of 78-year-old Amanda L’Heureux. She died in April 2020 and is one of the 25 who died during the worst part of the pandemic at the care facility.
“The nursing home industry wants to make these cases as expensive and as difficult to pursue as possible,” Steele said.
The suit was originally filed in August 2020 in Kansas’ federal court system. However, Steele said their counsel appealed the filing of the suit using the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act. It was created in 2005 under the George W. Bush administration and was meant to protect drug makers against liabilities regarding the H1N1 vaccine.
Steele said during the pandemic, lawyers are trying to use it in another way.
“It wasn’t really meant in our view, or most people’s view, to apply to a skilled nursing facility, but with the help of the previous administration there was some executive decision making that came out from the Department of Health and Human services that helped to make that argument for the nursing homes,” Steele said.
The state of Kansas sided with Steele, but he said Brighton Gardens, owned by Sunrise Senior Living Management, Inc., took it all the way to Washington D.C. for another appeal.
Now they are working with appellate lawyers in the area with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that has worked on cases trying to overturn Citizens United and a variety of other cases over the past 50 years.
“Hopefully we will have a ruling sometime by the end of the year. Almost all of the district courts except for one in this country has ruled against the nursing home industry making these arguments,” Steele said.
He said, in the United States, there are fewer COVID-19 suits like this than you would think. Only a few hundred and, at the level Hatcher’s case has reached, only a handful.
“These owners and operators make a conscious decision to put their profits over the people they promised to care for. We’re going to hold them accountable, and take cases to trial, and there won’t be quiet settlements that have dominated this industry for so long. Those days are over,” Steele said.
Once the court in D.C. makes a decision on whether Brighton Gardens can appeal, the next step would be to see if the Supreme Court would hear the case, which can be a complicated process. Steele said he thinks that would be unlikely, and if so, the case would come back to Kansas.
At that point, the discovery of evidence process would start, and they could head to trial.
FOX4 reached out to Sunrise Senior Living Management, Inc. several times ahead of this article by phone and email, but did not hear back. In March 2020, FOX4 received a statement from SSLM, Inc. in regards to a separate wrongful death lawsuit.
“We do not comment on legal matters, and have yet to be provided with a copy of this complaint. Public health experts are struggling to respond to the unpredictable nature of this novel virus, as the pandemic reaches every corner of this world. We continue to implement guidance from the CDC and other health agencies, and our courageous frontline team members use their training, experience and love of our residents to protect and care for our senior population.”Sunrise Senior Living Management, Inc., May, 2020