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Tampa law firm wins another big verdict in nursing home lawsuit without a defense

Published Feb. 9, 2012

For the third time in two years, the Tampa law firm of Wilkes & McHugh has won a whopping nursing home verdict by getting a case to trial with no defense arguing for the other side.

In 2010, a Polk County jury awarded $114 million in a nursing home resident's death. Last month, a Pinellas County jury awarded $200 million after a woman in a wheelchair toppled to her death in a stairwell.

On Wednesday, a Gainesville jury handed down a $900 million verdict, including $700 million in punitive damages — half again more than Wilkes & McHugh had even asked for.

The nominal defendants in all three cases were a family of Delaware corporations that owned or operated hundreds of nursing homes nationwide. The management arm — Trans Health Management Inc. — has since gone defunct. A parent company — Trans Healthcare Inc. — is in receivership in Maryland.

What is drawing so much outrage from juries is unrebutted testimony that the controlling interests behind these companies were hedge funds and banks that allegedly siphoned money out of nursing home operations by cutting staff, loading up on debt, letting care decline and shuffling funds between corporations to buffer them from lawsuits.

"We are showing the sums of money being looted,'' James Wilkes said. "We think total profits were about $2 billion that was sucked out of the system.''

Attorney Maria Ellena Chavez-Ruark, who represents Trans Healthcare's Maryland receiver, tried to delay the Gainesville trial on Friday, saying the receivership had barred any further claims against the company and that Wilkes had reneged on promises not to bring claims against the companies. That's why the receivership stopped defending the case in 2010, she said.

The judge refused to delay the trial or allow her to reappear for the defense on the eve of the trial.

With no witnesses or lawyers for the defense, Chavez-Ruark said, "The jury did not receive the benefit of an accurate or reliable presentation of evidence. The verdict it returned is not supported by Florida law and violates the due process rights of the defendants."

The Maryland receiver will file an appeal if the judge does not grant a new trial, Chavez-Ruark said. And though Wilkes & McHugh now has three verdicts totaling $1.2 billion, it may have a hard time collecting. The Trans Health companies do not appear to have much in the way of assets. But Wilkes & McHugh is trying to collect from a few hedge funds and financial institutions such as GE Capital Corp., saying they colluded to pull money out of nursing home operations and should now be forced to return it.

Though the Gainesville case alleged medical neglect, Wilkes & McHugh also sued for abuse and exploitation of the elderly, based on the alleged siphoning away of funds.