When a nursing home resident suffers an injury that hasn’t been observed or that the resident can’t explain, federal law requires the facility to classify it as an “injury from an unknown source” and launch an investigation. But the fact is that this doesn’t always happen. In 2001, 25 percent of nursing homes nationwide were cited for causing death or a serious injury to a resident, which gives facilities less motivation to pursue sincere investigations.
This problem is compounded by a lack of checks and balances on the many Americans who die each year in nursing homes — these deaths make up 24 percent of the whole of annual US deaths. When attending doctors report that a death is natural, coroners and medical examiners almost never investigate. In some states, doctors can fill out a death certificate without ever seeing the body — and the ones that do are usually the doctors responsible for the resident’s failed treatment. This situation isn’t helped by the plummeting percentage of autopsies performed on those over 65 — a number which has fallen from 37 percent in 1972 to 17 percent in 2007.
All this adds up to a difficult situation for families of the 5,000 nursing home residents who die annually due to negligence or abuse — and the much greater number who sustain lesser injuries from such behavior. This situation is one where the advice of a skilled attorney can be invaluable.
Questions to Ask When an Unexplained Death Occurs
When a nursing home resident dies suddenly and unexpectedly without a diagnosed, life-threatening condition, it may be cause for concern. Oftentimes there are hints to be found in the circumstances surrounding the death, and in the way the facility runs their operations.
If you’re concerned, you should ask:
- Did the doctor see the deceased before filling out the death certificate?
- Were there any unexplained bruises on the deceased’s body?
- Was the deceased malnourished or dehydrated?
- What is staff treatment of other residents like?
- Is the facility clean and well maintained?
- What medications was the deceased on before they died? Were there any new additions?
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Signs That Abuse or Neglect May Be Behind an Unexplained Injury
Most of the time, nursing home-caused injuries are signs of deep systemic issues — for example, not having a fall safety protocol or enough staff to adequately monitor residents.
Many types of abuse aren’t overt but are still the facility’s responsibility; the following signs may reflect neglect, allowance of self-neglect, verbal abuse, false imprisonment and other ways that a bad facility may not live up to its duty of care:
- Bedsores or pressure wounds
- Lack of supervision for residents
- Environmental hazards that could cause falls
- Instances of wandering or elopement
- Withdrawn, anxious or depressed behavior
- Dehydration and/or malnourishment
- Sudden weight loss
- Poor hygiene
- Unsanitary living conditions
How to Find Out What Really Happened at a Nursing Home
Every case is different, but the following tools may help your attorney uncover the real cause of death or injury:
A medical examiner or coroner investigation (for unexplained deaths)
This may include an autopsy, and will hopefully confirm the cause of death reported on the death certificate.
Notifying the facility of a potential claim and their legal requirement to preserve evidence like video footage
This is to keep the home from destroying any evidence — and evidence like video footage will come in handy for verifying nursing home treatment claims.
Identifying and interviewing witnesses
Many times, other nursing home residents or staff will know of abuse or neglect.
Reviewing medical records, checking for changes
Medical records can help to confirm or cast doubt on a nursing home’s explanation of events, and show negligence — for example, in prescribing dangerous combinations of medication.
Consulting a forensic pathologist (for unexplained deaths)
These doctors are legal experts in determining cause of death.
When to Consult with an Experienced Nursing Home Malpractice Attorney
The best course of action if you feel that your loved one’s death or injury was not explained sufficiently is to consult with skilled attorneys like those at McEldrew Young Purtell Merritt as soon as possible. With 30 years of experience in medical malpractice, McEldrew Young Purtell Merritt is well suited to evaluate the situation and help determine the next steps toward justice.