Law360 (October 21, 2020, 10:09 PM EDT) -- A COVID-19 outbreak that ripped through a Pittsburgh-area nursing home and led to hundreds of infections and dozens of deaths was caused by the home's reckless, willful and wanton conduct, according to a suit filed Wednesday in Pennsylvania state court on behalf of 15 patients, 10 of whom died.
Jodi Gill and several others filed the suit in Beaver County accusing Comprehensive Healthcare Management Services LLC of negligently operating its facility, Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, by failing to take sufficient steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among patients and staff, failing to provide staff with personal protective equipment and downplaying the severity of the virus even as it spread through the facility.
The suit filed on behalf of 15 of the more than 330 patients who contracted the virus at the nursing home also alleges that the Brighton facility was understaffed and unprepared even before the pandemic, and notes that state health regulators unearthed scores of health violations during multiple inspections that took place in the past 30 months.
"It is no surprise then that as the Department of Health observed, Brighton's nursing staff cut corners while struggling to care for hundreds of residents during the pandemic," the complaint states. "Brighton's understaffing caused cross-contamination among residents and staff and allowed the facility to become a breeding ground for the coronavirus spread until most residents had contracted the virus and more than 70 residents had died."
Tremella Celestin, a certified nursing assistant who worked at the home until late May, said Brighton did not perform widespread testing of residents, kept inaccurate records for those who tested positive and failed to properly quarantine or isolate infected residents, according to the suit.
"According to her declaration, Ms. Celestin was normally required to care for forty or more residents during the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift; she was unable to properly do her job because of the low staffing levels," the suit said. "Even though care was not properly provided to the residents, someone at Brighton would regularly and daily falsify and complete the 'Activities of Daily Living' records indicating that care was in fact properly provided to each and every resident."
The suit, which specifically notes that it does not fault any frontline workers for the patients' injuries and deaths, brings claims of negligence, corporate negligence and wrongful death and seeks both compensatory and punitive damages. The plaintiffs said the home's wrongdoing "went beyond ordinary negligence into gross negligence, recklessness, and willful and wanton conduct."
As of Oct. 14, there had been 334 patients at Brighton who tested positive for the disease, 117 positive staff members and at least 80 deaths linked to the outbreak, according to the lawsuit.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Robert Daley, told Law360 on Wednesday that he hopes the suit will shed light on facilities like Brighton in a state where half of the nursing homes saw no coronavirus cases or deaths.
"It's an important matter because it helps to protect our most vulnerable, our older citizens," he said. "It's also about what happened before the pandemic. Brighton Rehab was not in a position to handle a COVID-19 outbreak, or any other outbreak. They were caught completely off guard ... when COVID-19 landed here in western Pennsylvania."
A representative for Brighton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wednesday's suit follows a similar wrongful death suit lodged on July 1 by the relatives of a housekeeper who contracted the virus while working at Brighton and later died. That suit was removed to federal court by Brighton in August.
Earlier this month, a Pennsylvania federal judge ruled that Brighton can't claim immunity under the federal Public Readiness and Protection Act because the law only gives health care providers protection for treatments and protective measures they use, not measures they were allegedly negligent in ignoring.
"The PREP Act creates immunity for all claims of loss causally connected to the use of covered countermeasures," U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab said. "The allegations asserted by plaintiff in her complaint directly suggest that the decedent died because Brighton failed to use countermeasures."
The plaintiffs are represented by Robert F. Daley and Elizabeth Chiappetta of Robert Peirce & Associates PC, Peter D. Giglione of Massa Butler Giglione and Kelly M. Tocci of McMillen Urick Tocci & Jones.
Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.
The case is Jodi Gill et al. v. Comprehensive Health Care Management Services LLC, case number unavailable, in the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
--Additional reporting by Matthew Santoni. Editing by Daniel King.
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