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Is Nursing Home Neglect Legal?

When you think of nursing home abuse, you may think of tragic stories of elderly residents being physically or psychologically abused or financially exploited by nursing home staff. While those are serious situations requiring immediate intervention, there's another form of abuse that often flies under the radar — neglect.

Millions of Americans live in nursing homes throughout the country, and the number of elderly Americans is only projected to increase. The understated problem of nursing home neglect poses a significant risk to many people and their family members.

What Constitutes Nursing Home Neglect?

The legal definitions of nursing home neglect differ by state, but they usually describe the failure of caregivers to provide or ensure:

  • Adequate food
  • Appropriate shelter
  • Appropriate clothing for the environment
  • Bathing services
  • Timely medical care
  • Supervision by staff and medical providers

Failing to provide nursing home residents with such basic necessities or allowing residents to deny themselves basic necessities, also referred to as self-neglect, is illegal under state and federal law. However, as in many situations, the consequences for perpetrators depends on the severity of their violations.

Illegal Doesn't Always Mean Criminal

Unlawful conduct that involves nursing home neglect can be categorized as civil laws or criminal laws. The cause of action and penalties may depend on whether the neglector is violating civil laws or criminal laws.

The violation of a civil law against another person provides for remedies for the injured party if they file a lawsuit. Remedies could include a court order to pay damages, injunctive relief, or require the losing party to perform specific actions. Criminal violations also involve harm to others and are considered an offense against the state. Because of this, criminal laws often warrant harsher forms of punishment like fines and jail time.

Nursing Home Neglect: Civil vs. Criminal

In the context of nursing home neglect, there are civil and criminal laws that apply based on a level of neglect. Minor degrees of neglectful conduct, like accidentally missing a resident's medical appointment, may not alone be enough to be a violation. However, as the neglect becomes more serious or repetitive, it could result in violations of civil and even criminal laws. Those violations could lead to specific remedies for the victim as well as punishments by the state.

There are several federal and state civil laws and regulations that apply to nursing homes. Nursing homes that participate in Medicare and Medicaid are generally subject to the Nursing Home Reform Act, a federal law with accompanying regulations. Under this law, nursing homes are required to have, among other things:

  • Sufficient nursing staff
  • Comprehensive care plans for patients
  • Proper treatment and assistive devices
  • Appropriate patient supervision
  • Necessary services to carry out activities of daily living
  • Maintenance of accurate, complete, and accessible clinical records

The failure to comply with these regulations, while violating federal law, doesn't necessarily result in criminal charges and penalties. Instead, they could subject nursing homes to civil penalties such as:

  • Civil money fines
  • Denial of Medicare/Medicaid payments
  • Use of independent assessors
  • Appointment of temporary management to oversee facilities
  • Removal and transfer of residents to other facilities

However, there are times when nursing home neglect is so egregious that it violates criminal as well as civil laws, usually in cases where the conduct was intentional.

For example, in California, the crime of elder abuse is punishable by up to seven years in prison when one "willfully causes or permits the person or health of the elder or dependent adult to be injured" in a way that is likely to produce great bodily harm or death.

Additional Resources for Nursing Home Neglect

Along with the civil and criminal laws relating to nursing home neglect, there are a number of resources available to victims and their loved ones. You can learn more about these topics by reviewing the articles below.

Next Steps: Get a Legal Case Review

One of the primary reasons nursing home neglect persists is because the victims are often unable or unwilling to report the abuse. This means that it's critical for others to intervene when they see red flags. If you're not sure what to do, you should speak with an experienced attorney who specializes in nursing home abuse cases. An attorney can advise you on the best ways to deal with a situation and protect a loved one. Learn more with a case review.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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