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Scottsdale  •  Phoenix

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Hiding Abuse, Neglect of Vulnerable People is The Wrong Answer

Article by Craig A. Knapp – Apr. 1, 2012 06:39 PM

In July 2007, Dennis Jerumbo was living in a Flagstaff group home.

He suffered from developmental and physical disabilities all his life and needed 24-hour supervision and assistance. The group home alleged Dennis fell. His skull was fractured, but Dennis wasn’t given medical care until the next morning.

Sadly, Dennis never regained consciousness. It would be several weeks until Dennis’ family made the painful decision to remove him from life support. According to the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office, the cause of death was blunt-force head injury. The medical examiner did not believe the skull fracture was from a fall. Dennis was most likely struck with a hard object.

I represented the Jerumbo family in a lawsuit against the Flagstaff group home to hold them accountable for causing Dennis’ death. Group homes, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities need to be held accountable if neglect or abuse occurs in their facility. The group home eventually settled the lawsuit.

Unfortunately, cases of abuse and neglect against the developmentally disabled and elderly population who are vulnerable are all too common. I represent many families who want to help protect the members of our society who need it the most.

However, a bill sits on the governor’s desk that seeks to sweep the horrible incidents of abuse of vulnerable people under the rug. House Bill 2560 aims to reduce the number of lawsuits filed against nursing homes and group homes. The problem, however, is it doesn’t help reduce the amount of abuse going on. It just masks the neglect without holding anyone accountable.

The bill eliminates attorney fees in cases where a jury has determined that a group home, nursing home or assisted-living facility committed abuse or neglect against a vulnerable adult under care.

In the past, the judge determined the amount of an attorney’s fees to be awarded for successfully prosecuting the case. HB 2560 takes that power away from the judge and makes the family pay for the case expenses. That’s wrong.

If attorneys won’t take cases of alleged abuse and hold those responsible for the abuse accountable, families will neither find justice nor force changes.

HB 2560 sponsor Ted Vogt, R-Tucson, is behind several bills that help out-of-state insurance companies but hurt Arizona consumers. Insurance companies often responsible for paying legal damages would avoid that cost. They want the victim to pay. Without monetary penalties, those facilities will continue abusive behaviors.

If HB 2560 becomes law, most cases against group homes and nursing homes will disappear. However, the abuse and neglect will not.

Because the bill appears headed for legislative approval, it is the hope of many that Gov. Jan Brewer steps in and uses her veto stamp to put an end to this bad idea.

The governor has long been a supporter of vulnerable populations. She has been an advocate, even in difficult budget times, of money for the mentally disabled. She has fought for this community when most want to forget.

In the end, it may be up to the state’s chief executive to stop this harmful legislation. The state’s most vulnerable people are counting on it.

Craig A. Knapp is a partner at Scottsdale-based law firm Knapp & Roberts. His law practice is devoted to catastrophic-injury and wrongful-death cases.

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