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Jury awards $200 million verdict in Pinellas nursing home death case

Published Jan. 13, 2012

A Pinellas County jury handed down a $200 million verdict this week against a company accused of not doing enough to prevent a 92-year-old woman's fatal fall at a local nursing home.

One afternoon in October 2004, Elvira Nunziata slipped away from a group of residents at the Pinellas Park Care and Rehabilitation Center, authorities said.

An hour passed before anyone noticed. Then someone checked an emergency exit door stairwell.

Nunziata, still strapped in her wheelchair, was at the bottom of about 10 stairs. She died shortly after paramedics arrived.

Her estate, represented by her son, sued Trans Health Management Inc., which oversaw the nursing home, in 2005.

The case went to trial early this week. After deliberating for less than an hour on Wednesday, the jury handed down its multi-million dollar verdict — $60 million in compensatory damages and $140 million in punitive damages.

"I asked the jury to make a statement," said Bennie Lazzara Jr. of the Tampa law firm Wilkes & McHugh. "To respect what she'd gone through and to send a message … that they should take responsibility for bad care."

Trans Health Management no longer manages the Pinellas Park facility, which is at 8701 49th St. N. Company officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

"I think this is the largest nursing home verdict in the state," Lazzara said.

Nunziata began living at the facility in August 2003.

At the trial, former caregivers testified the nursing home was understaffed and that, before her death, Nunziata suffered other falls, injuries and illnesses.

Nursing staff also knew Nunziata was prone to wandering, her attorneys said. She had the onset of dementia.

On the day she died, attorneys said, alarms on her clothing, wheelchair and the emergency door should have alerted staff to her location.

Nunziata's son Richard, who lives in St. Petersburg, declined to comment.

"He's a very private person," Lazzara said. "This was a very difficult experience for him ... He's satisfied that he's going to get some justice out of this."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.


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