Health Law

Alzheimer's patients aren't liable for injuries to home-care workers, California Supreme Court says

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The California Supreme Court has ruled that Alzheimer’s patients and their families are not liable to home health-care workers for injuries caused by the patients, if the employees were warned of the risks and the injuries were caused by symptoms of the disease.

The California Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a 5-2 decision (PDF), the Los Angeles Times reports. The court said the assumption of risk doctrine bars recovery.

“Because agitation and physical aggression are common late-stage symptoms of the disease, injuries to caregivers are not unusual,” the court said. “California and other jurisdictions have established the rule that Alzheimer‘s patients are not liable for injuries to caregivers in institutional settings. We conclude that the same rule applies to in-home caregivers.”

A contrary rule would create an incentive to institutionalize Alzheimer’s patients, the court said.

The court ruled in the case of a worker hired by Bernard Cott to care for his 85-year-old wife, Lorraine. Cott warned the worker that his wife would bite, kick, scratch and flail.

The worker, Carolyn Gregory, was injured in September 2008 when she was washing a large knife, Lorraine bumped into her and reached toward the sink. Gregory tried to restrain Lorraine, dropping the knife and cutting her wrist. Gregory lost feeling in several fingers and experiences recurring pain as a result.

Gregory worked for an agency and had received workers compensation. The court suggested that the legislature might want to consider “training requirements and enhanced insurance benefits for caregivers exposed to the risk of injury.”

The majority said it was limiting its ruling to health-care workers employed and trained by an agency. The dissenters said the reasoning of the decision would also apply to workers hired directly by families, leaving them without workers compensation and a tort recovery.

“I believe tort law should align incentives with the consequences of the decisions one makes,” the dissent said. “Thus, when a family considers the suitability of in-home care for a member suffering from Alzheimer‘s disease, the law should encourage family members like Bernard Cott to weigh the benefits of in-home care against the costs it may impose on others.”

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