$7.75 million awarded in abuse case

A Ventura County jury Friday (December 11, 2009) awarded $7.75 million to the family of a 71-year-old stroke victim who filed an elder abuse lawsuit against the Fillmore Convalescent Center.

The trial, which featured a secret videotape of the woman being abused, lasted 22 days. The jury deliberated for two days before announcing the verdict: $2.75 million in actual damages and $5 million in punitives.

In 2006, Maria Arellano, 71, was a resident at the center and family members noticed during a visit that she was bruised. They complained to management but alleged the center failed to investigate. So they set up a hidden video camera on a side table in her room.

Gregory Johnson, an attorney representing the family, said the camera caught employee Monica Garcia slapping Arellano, pulling her around by the hair, bending her neck, fingers and wrists, and treating her violently in a shower chair.

Garcia was criminally charged and pleaded no contest to simple battery in February, according to her attorney, David Lehr.

“She did 10 days’ work release and is halfway through,” he said. “My client was very sorry for her actions. She told the jury that. She’s no longer going to work in the nursing home environment, and this case has deeply affected her life. She wishes the Arellano family well.”

No one at the Fillmore Convalescent Center could be reached for comment late Friday. The center’s attorney, Thomas Beach, also could not be reached.

During the ordeal at the center, the Arellano family met another resident, Daniel Sanchez, 83, who was staying across the hall. His family suspected he, too, was being abused.

“The Sanchez family, they found bruises and hair pulling,” said Johnson, who’s filed a lawsuit on the family’s behalf that is slated for trial in January. “Mr. Daniel Sanchez has since died. They (Arellano and Sanchez) were both stroke victims who were non-verbal.”

The verdict splits liability among three defendants: the center, 40 percent; owner Eduardo Gonzalez, 40 percent; and Garcia, 20 percent.

Johnson said he offered to settle the case with the center in July for $500,000.

“They never offered me one dime,” he said. “They never offered to go to mediation, nothing. There was a lot of arrogance.”

The center has not made an offer to settle the Sanchez case either, Johnson said.

Sylvia Taylor Stein, executive director of the Long Term Care Services of Ventura County Inc., Ombudsman Program, said the judgment is sad but not necessarily reflective of the entire facility.

“Bad things can happen in a good facility the same way good things can happen in a bad facility,” she said.

About two weeks ago, Fillmore Convalescent received a five-star rating, the highest, from the Nursing Home Compare system, run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Despite the lawsuit, Arellano remains a patient at the center.

“The five-star rating doesn’t always reflect what’s going on today or what went on yesterday,” Stein said.

Stein said her office facilitated the filing of the Sanchez lawsuit after his family reported the alleged abuse to her office.

— Staff writer Kim Lamb Gregory contributed to this report.

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