Move Quickly When Someone Unexpectedly Dies in a Nursing Home
A nursing home resident should not die suddenly and unexpectedly except by a diagnosable and not-preventable medical condition.
If someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly in a nursing home and you can’t get straight, honest answers as to what happened–and why–you should have someone investigating that death as soon as possible.
How We Investigate Sudden Nursing Home Deaths
Here is an overview of how we investigate sudden deaths in nursing homes generally. Every case is different, and may involve different approaches.
- Get the Medical Examiner / Coroner Involved Immediately
- Put the facility on notice of a potential claim and their legal requirement to preserve evidence like video footage
- Obtain all video footage
- Identify and interview witnesses
- Review all medical records
- Check for changes or alterations to records
- Consult experts
Get the Medical Examiner / Coroner Involved Immediately
The goal here is to figure out why the person died. There could be an innocent medical explanation. The evidence of that may be inside the person or require examining their body. That’s something, ideally, the medical examiner or coroner should do.
It can include seeking an autopsy. While this may not be pleasant, there are certain medical causes of death that may only be detected (or ruled out) through an autopsy.
Any suspicious or sudden death, or death involving physical trauma, should already be reported to the medical examiner’s office. Many times they aren’t in my experience.
So ask doctors and hospitals to report the death. Follow up with the medical examiner’s office directly. Once the person is cremated or buried, it may be too late for them to do anything.
Put the facility on notice of a potential claim and their legal requirement to preserve evidence like video footage
When a potential lawsuit defendant knows or should know there’s a potential legal claim being investigated, and they may have certain evidence in their possession (like video footage), they have a duty not to destroy that evidence.
If they do destroy it, we may be able to get sanctions for destruction of evidence (called “spoliation”), which may include the jury being instructed that the evidence would have helped our case.
Lots of types of evidence may be destroyed over time. For example, there may be security cameras in hallways that record on a “loop,” so the footage is deleted every two weeks or 30 days.
If we wait until 6 months have gone by to put the facility on notice, they can claim they did not know it was evidence anyone wanted.
Obtain all video footage
If there’s any footage of the person, or the hallway to / from their room, we want it. This will help prove (or disprove) what staff wrote in the medical record or may later testify about.
For example, if the family discovers someone dead in their room, the facility may claim “we just checked on her.” If no one actually shows up on the video going to her room, we know that’s a lie.
Identify and interview witnesses
There are lots of people in nursing homes: other residents, their families, staff, outside medical providers, and others.
Any of these people may be able to shed light on what happened. And in Ohio, nursing homes may be able to find some of these people, but hide what they said.
We go find them and get their story for ourselves.
Time is crucial here, too. Many residents may leave a nursing home, especially if they were just there for rehabilitation. You can lose the story that can help you figure out why someone died in a nursin ghome if you let witnesses disappear.
Review all medical records
Medical records help us understand what may have happened. They show prior medical conditions that could lead to sudden death. For example, death by heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism.
They also contain records of staff involved with the person leading up to their death. Was there neglect? Abuse? Failure to recognize and respond to warning signs of an impending medical emergency?
Check for changes or alterations to records
As useful as medical records can be, we cannot assume they’re accurate or honest.
Staff at nursing homes can alter records after the fact as a cover-up of what happened. This will show up in the record of medical record changes, called an “audit trail,” for electronic medical records. It can be harder to detect with hand-written medical records, but we’ve seen it.
People can also make self-serving or false records of care before a death. For example, we’ve seen cases in which someone says they took vital signs, took a resident to the toilet, or gave medications, when we know it’s a lie.
We’ve even seen cases where care was supposedly given after the person has already left the facility, or died.
There are private doctors who can determine causes of death–called “forensic pathologists”–and we can and do retain such experts in cases like this. Even when we have the medical examiner’s office on board.
Getting an Experienced Nursing Home Lawyer on Board Early
You can see from this list how important time is when a nursing home resident unexpectedly dies.
Getting an experienced nursing home lawyer investigating quickly can be important to finding out what really happened.
But a word of warning: any “personal injury” lawyer can say “I do nursing home cases.” Any lawyer can put a page on their website talking vaguely about nursing home cases. Do your homework and ask them tough questions:
- Is this all they do? What other types of cases do they handle?
- Have they ever taken a nursing home case to trial?
- How many of this type of nursing home cases have they handled?
- Can they answer your specific questions about nursing home laws and regulations? Or do they give general answers and change the subject?
- Do they seem like subject-matter experts on nursing home law?
Remember, you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. Changing lawyers can be time-consuming. And by the time you realize they aren’t the right lawyer for your family, it may already be too late.
So put the effort in up front to get it right if you can.