A pair of state high court rulings this week put senior living and other long-term care providers on notice that pandemic-related liability protections aren’t a given.

The Connecticut Supreme Court issued two opinions on Wednesday that allow negligence claims against healthcare workers and healthcare facilities to proceed, despite arguments that both were covered under immunity shields provided in a 2020 executive order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont (D). The decisions narrow providers’ immunity from pandemic-related lawsuits.

Although Lamont’s original executive order did not include assisted living communities as protected providers, the order did apply to individual healthcare professionals working in assisted living, LeadingAge Connecticut President Mag Morelli told McKnight’s Senior Living

Decision narrows immunity scope

In Kimberly Manginelli v. Regency House of Wallingford, the state Supreme Court held that a lower court had erred in tossing a claim against a nursing home too early, after the operator argued that it faced “administrative challenges” caused by COVID-19, which were covered under the executive order.  

Manginelli filed the wrongful death suit, alleging medical negligence and medical recklessness in the death of her mother, Darlene Matejek, in December 2020 as a result of treatment delays for a fall at the skilled nursing facility during the height of the pandemic.

Regency House and National Health Care Associates, also named in the lawsuit, moved to have the complaint dismissed, claiming that they had immunity from the lawsuit under the state executive order. Manginelli, however, argued that her mother’s injuries were not COVID-19-related and were outside of the liability protections. 

The trial court denied the nursing home’s motion to dismiss. In its appeal, the nursing home operator argued that the trial court erred in its overly narrow interpretation of the executive order in applying it only when the alleged acts and/or omissions involved the diagnoses or treatment of COVID-19 patients.

The state Supreme Court backed the provider’s interpretation that operators were protected in cases where COVID-19 left facilities short-staffed and affected care throughout a building, even if a resident or patient in a given case did not have the virus. But the high court also upheld the lower court decision denying National Health Care Associates’ motion to dismiss, ruling that the operator had to show more evidence of how COVID-19 affected its operations before protections granted through an executive order applied.

COVID-19 test marks liability dividing line

In a companion ruling, Mills v. Hartford HealthCare Corp., the state Supreme Court held that immunity protections apply to actions taken to prevent, diagnose or treat the virus but that those protections do not extend to actions taken after presence of the virus has been ruled out. 

Kristen Mills filed a lawsuit alleging that her mother, Cheryl Mills, died after being misdiagnosed with a non-life-threatening heart condition by hospital physicians. Mills alleged that her mother’s death was the result of negligent and grossly negligent medical care provided by the hospital, which delayed diagnosis and treatment pending a COVID-19 test. That test ultimately came back negative. 

The trial court concluded that the receipt of the negative COVID-19 test result marked the dividing line between provider immunity and potential liability. That court ruled that the hospital had immunity before the patient’s COVID-19 test result came back but not once the negative test result was known.

The state Supreme Court ruled that immunity granted under the state executive order applied to actions related to preventing, diagnosing or treating COViD-19, but not to actions taken after the virus had been ruled out.

For additional coverage, see sister publication McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.