The California Attorney General will decide whether a senior living provider will face criminal charges after three adults in its care died after accidental poisonings.
In the past year, care provider Atria Senior Living lost three seniors to poisoning deaths after the victims accidentally drank cleaning solution. The deaths resulted from two separate incidents at the provider’s San Mateo and Walnut Creek facilities.
The first death occurred after a 94-year-old man allegedly left his room while the healthcare worker responsible for his care was busy with other tasks. He found a bottle of brightly colored cleaning solution and apparently drank it, assuming it was juice. The caustic solvent caused serious chemical burns, and unfortunately, the victim passed away a few days later.
The second pair of deaths occurred after a worker at the San Mateo facility mistook a container with cleaning solution for juice and poured several residents glasses of it during lunch. According to surveillance footage of the incident, it occurred because too few healthcare workers were present in the dining area.
When an altercation occurred, the person cleaning the kitchen left to help, abandoning the container of cleaning solution. A different person returned to start serving the residents, assumed the open, unmarked container on the counter was juice, and served it to three residents, two of whom died.
One accidental poisoning due to overly busy healthcare workers may be a tragic accident or individual negligence. Three suggests that there may be a systemic issue at play. That’s why the Attorney General is considering pressing charges against the provider.
According to the families of the deceased, they do not blame the workers themselves. They argue that the facilities were chronically understaffed, forcing individual nurses and aids to make compromises in the care they gave patients. If that’s the case, the facility may be considered criminally negligent for forcing both residents and staff into unsafe situations where accidents and deaths are inevitable.
If Atria Senior Living is found guilty of criminal negligence, this could significantly alter the wrongful death lawsuits brought against the provider by victims’ families. Here’s how criminal and civil negligence charges overlap and why pursuing both is worthwhile.
Criminal vs. Civil Penalties for Negligence
There are many circumstances where someone may be both criminally and civilly liable for the same incident. These types of liability address different societal concerns.
- Criminal cases identify whether someone broke the law and, if so, how they should be penalized. Defendants must be proven to have committed a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt” to be found guilty. Convictions may lead to fines, community service, mandatory rehabilitation courses, and prison sentences.
- Civil cases allow victims of crimes, contract breaches, or other rights violations to pursue compensation for their losses. Parties may be liable for civil penalties if the plaintiff can provide a “preponderance of evidence” that the defendant violated their rights. If so, the defendant may be ordered to financially compensate the plaintiff or address the violation.
There are many ways to harm someone that are not necessarily a crime, and many crimes that do not directly harm people. As such, criminal and civil penalties do not always overlap. Situations where they coincide include the following:
- Theft is illegal, and victims may pursue civil lawsuits to receive full compensation for their losses.
- Assault is a crime that often leaves victims with significant medical bills, for which the assailant may be liable.
- Deaths caused by negligence, reckless driving, or murder are all grounds for wrongful death lawsuits.
In the Atria Senior Living cases, the deaths of the residents may meet the criteria for criminal negligence and elder abuse, according to the Attorney General. If so, the provider could be held both civilly and criminally liable.
Impact of Criminal Convictions on Civil Cases
The overlap between criminal and civil court cases is more than just a quirk of the legal system. It allows victims of specific crimes to pursue compensation for their losses even when the evidence does not support a criminal conviction.
The burden of proof for criminal convictions is significantly higher than that for civil cases. Proving something beyond a reasonable doubt takes considerably more effort and evidence than providing a preponderance of the evidence. As such, it’s possible for a party to be found innocent during a criminal trial but found liable during a civil case.
The most well-known example is that of O. J. Simpson, who was found not guilty of his wife’s and friend’s deaths. He was found liable for her wrongful death in civil court and ordered to pay their families $25 million in punitive damages. This helps victims to hold the people who harmed them accountable even if the criminal trial does not.
While not-guilty verdicts do not preclude successful civil trials, criminal convictions actively benefit the civil case. When someone is convicted, a judge or jury has determined they committed the crime in question beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, it is invaluable proof for the civil plaintiff’s argument that the event occurred and they were harmed by it. If Atria Senior Living is found guilty of criminal negligence, the families of the deceased will have a significantly easier time with their wrongful death lawsuits.
Seeking Justice for Your Loved One’s Suffering
If you have a loved one who suffers under or died from criminal negligence in a nursing care facility, you can seek justice. You may be able to file both criminal and civil negligence claims to hold the facility accountable for its actions. At Fiore Achermann, we specialize in representing clients who have suffered due to negligent care or elder abuse. Learn more about how we can assist you in your case by scheduling your consultation with our empathetic California elder abuse attorneys today.