NC pandemic law could make it harder for patients to win lawsuits

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — A Union County woman is upset with an assisted living facility that she said should have taken better care of her mother.

Mary Goldberg said her mother, 87-year-old Martha Dickens, has dementia and was living at Brookdale Monroe Square. In February, staff there determined she needed to go to the hospital where, according to medical records, Dickens was diagnosed with pneumonia, “failure to thrive,” acute kidney injury, bruising along her side and a broken ankle.

Goldberg said she was stunned when she got to the hospital.

“It was mortifying when they rolled her over … even the doctor was there and he’s like, ‘You didn’t know about this?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I had no clue,’” she told Action 9′s Jason Stoogenke. “I looked at that and I thought, ‘Oh my, what happened?’”

She said Brookdale didn’t tell her her mom had fallen until a few days later. Goldberg moved her mother to another facility and said she’s doing well now.

She thought about suing Brookdale, but she said lawyers told her she’d have a hard time winning the case because of a somewhat new state law.

It’s called the Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act. It says health care workers may be immune from liability for anything they did or should have done during the pandemic -- even if the patient’s case didn’t have anything to do with COVID-19 directly -- as long as the health care provider was impacted by the pandemic.

For example, if a doctor’s office or nursing home was short-staffed.

Goldberg said the law gives too many health care workers a free pass.

“It’s all going to be swept away because we’ve got this law to protect us,” she said. “It’s too far reaching.”

But others defend the law, such as attorney Deedee Gasch.

“I feel that it gives the health care providers a little bit of breathing room in really difficult times,” she told Stoogenke. “The health care providers and facilities have had to provide care under extremely unique and difficult and challenging circumstances that there’s not a roadmap for.”

She also points out that the law still doesn’t protect health care workers who were grossly negligent or hurt a patient on purpose.

Stoogenke checked Brookdale’s records with the state. Its most recent rating was a high score -- over 100 -- and no penalties in the last three years.

Brookdale wouldn’t discuss Goldberg’s mother for patient privacy reasons, but it did send a statement, saying, “Brookdale disputes the characterization of this claim. Our communities and associates work diligently to serve seniors as they age. We are dedicated to providing quality care to our residents, and we take our mission of enriching the lives of those we serve seriously.”

There has been some confusion about the lifespan of the law. Some think it expires Friday, but Stoogenke checked with the governor’s office and it said the law applies until the governor lifts the state of emergency, which he has not set a date for.

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