Pa. Nursing Home Sued Over Housekeeper's COVID-19 Death

By Matthew Santoni
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Law360 (July 1, 2020, 6:18 PM EDT) -- A Pittsburgh-area nursing home was utterly unprepared for the COVID-19 outbreak, resulting in hundreds of patients and staff getting infected and dozens dying, according to a lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania state court Wednesday by the family of a housekeeper who died of the coronavirus.

Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, had been cited many times before by state investigators for allegedly poor hygiene practices and lack of planning for controlling infectious disease, the lawsuit says. As a result, it was easy for the highly contagious coronavirus to enter the facility and spread among patients and underequipped staff, including housekeeper Elizabeth Wiles, who died May 10, according to the suit.

"In the lead-up to the COVID-19 outbreak, defendants recklessly and wantonly created and/or permitted to exist facility conditions and work practices that created a perfect environment for an infectious disease to run rampant through facility staff and residents," the complaint said. "Despite COVID-19's clear threat, particularly in nursing homes and to frontline workers, and its increasing presence in Pennsylvania, defendants failed to take any protective measures to ensure that workers and residents at the facility were protected and to prevent the devastating virus from entering the facility. … Defendants downplayed and/or denied the danger posed to its workers at the Brighton facility."

Wiles' estate makes claims of negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, intentional misrepresentation, wrongful death and survival action against Brighton's owner and operator, Comprehensive Healthcare Management Services LLC; housekeeping contractor Healthcare Services Group Inc.; and various related companies and individual executives.

As of late June, there had been 368 patients at Brighton who tested positive for the disease, 108 positive staff members and 80 deaths linked to the outbreak, including Wiles, according to the lawsuit. State investigations found more problems with a lack of infection prevention and control measures; the results of a federal investigation were still pending, the suit says.

The suit says that the Brighton facility, which was bought by CHMS in 2014, was "among the most highly fined nursing homes in Pennsylvania" for violations such as unclean kitchens, bathrooms and other common areas; unsanitary handling of clean and dirty linens; understaffing; and lack of infection control protocols.

When COVID-19 surfaced, nothing at the facility appeared to change, the suit says.

Wiles, who was 69 years old, had been treated for cancer in 2014 and had high blood pressure, according to the suit. She tried to advise her supervisors that she was at high risk if she caught the disease, but the companies told her to keep working even as infections started to crop up at the facility, the lawsuit says.

"In March 2020, defendants knew or should have known that staff, workers and/or residents at Brighton were infected with COVID-19. Despite this knowledge, defendants kept and withheld information about COVID-19 infections in the facility from staff, workers, residents, residents' families, government officials and the public at large," the complaint said. "Defendants did not make the public aware of the Brighton outbreak until April 1, 2020. … Brighton already had three dead residents, thirty-six known infected residents and six known infected facility workers."

The day of the April 1 announcement, some of the staff staged a walkout over their lack of preparation or protective equipment, the lawsuit says. The next day, under pressure from the nurses' union, the facility agreed to provide protective gear and COVID-19 testing to certain employees, the suit says.

The spread of the disease and the alleged lack of staffing at Brighton eventually became so dire that the Pennsylvania National Guard intervened May 8, with 27 guard members providing help with nursing, cleaning and training, according to the suit and an announcement from the National Guard.

Two days later, Wiles died of COVID-19, the suit says.

"There is no doubt that the defendants' motivation for intentionally misrepresenting to its employees and others the safety of the facility was to continue to make money and to deceive state and federal regulatory agencies about the severity of the outbreak," said Robert J. Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC, representing Wiles' estate. "COVID-19 found a perfect environment to spread at Brighton — an understaffed nursing home lacking proper [personal protective equipment] and protocols and that had been repeatedly cited for unsafe and utterly ineffective infection controls."

Representatives of CHMS and HCMS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Wiles' estate and its administrator, Vanessa Sherod, are represented by Robert J. Mongeluzzi, David L. Kwass and Elizabeth A. Bailey of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky PC.

Counsel information was not immediately available for the Brighton defendants.

The case is Sherod v. CHMS Group LLC et al., case number GD-20-007319, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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