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Nursing home verdict rejected

A company wins its appeal in a case that involved a woman who lost most of her right leg and won a $10-million damage award.

An appellate court has overturned the verdict _ and the accompanying $10-million damage award _ that a jury returned two years ago against Citrus Health and Rehabilitative Center, an Inverness nursing home.

The court ruled Friday that the verdict could not stand because the trial judge allowed the jury to consider "inadmissible, highly prejudicial evidence." That evidence: a copy of a lawsuit that somebody else had brought against the nursing home's parent company.

The 5th District Court of Appeal ordered the trial judge to take the case back. The parties now must schedule a new trial, reach a settlement or resolve the case some other way.

The jury verdict, announced in August 1999, was among the biggest ever returned against a Florida nursing home.

The jury had found that the staff at Citrus Health and Rehabilitative Center did not properly care for resident Winifred Martin. Mrs. Martin lost most of her right leg because a toe infection spread out of control during her stay.

The jury said Mrs. Martin should receive $18-million in compensatory damages and that her husband, James, should get $2-million.

The panel further found that two of Mrs. Martin's doctors bore half the responsibility. Since those doctors weren't party to the suit, the Martins stood to collect only half, or $10-million, of the award.

That wasn't good news for Citrus Health's owner, the Long Term Care Foundation Inc., or for Servicemaster Diversified Health Services, the management company that ran Citrus Health.

But with the appellate court's decision, those companies are in a much better position.

To support his client's claim for punitive damages Mrs. Martin's lawyer entered into evidence a copy of a lawsuit that someone else had filed against Long Term Care.

The plaintiff in that case alleged that the company had done a poor job of caring for a resident at one of its other nursing homes.

On appeal, Mrs. Martin's legal team said the evidence was proper _ and legally allowable _ because it showed the company's "conscious indifference" toward residents.

Under certain circumstances, Florida law allows juries to hear evidence of other wrongful acts that a defendant has been accused of committing. But judges must be careful to ensure that the evidence is relevant and not overly prejudicial.

Mrs. Martin's legal team failed on that score, the appellate court found.

Chief Judge Emerson Thompson, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, noted that the lawsuit Mrs. Martin's team showed the jury was filed after Mrs. Martin had been discharged from Citrus Health.

As a result, he wrote, the existence of the suit didn't prove that the company had been warned, through the filing of the suit, that it should improve its care.

Thompson and the two other judges _ Charles Harris and Jesse Preson Silvernail, an associate judge on the court _ found that the lawsuit was unfairly prejudicial.

"The complaint contained bare allegations against the center in the form of rank hearsay," the opinion concluded.