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Sisters sue Missoula nursing home for mother's COVID death
Missoulian - 2/24/2021
Two sisters are suing over possible negligence at Village Health and Rehabilitation, where their mother contracted COVID-19 and died.
Village Health and Rehabilitation is a 193-bed nursing home. It is licensed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and overseen by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Quality Assurance Division of Montana.
This fall, the facility experienced the largest known COVID-19 outbreak among nursing homes in the state. The Missoulian found that more than 80% of its residents, 116 of 145 at the onset of the outbreak, contracted the virus in a little more than a month, according to a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services database.
As of Jan. 24, at least 26 residents had died due to COVID-19, according to the database.
One of those deaths was Ericka Iva Trusty, who died on Nov. 8 at the age of 75. Trusty’s daughters, Amy Fettig and Wendy Plute, filed the lawsuit on their mother’s behalf. Missoula Attorney Michael Doggett is representing the sisters.
Doggett requested the case be certified as a class action and said more than 100 people could be party to the suit.
“This case alleges negligence and mistreatment of Ericka Iva Trusty and other elders in our community, resulting in the largest COVID outbreak in Montana,” according to the complaint filed in Missoula District Court.
Village Health and Rehabilitation is owned by Village Health Care Inc., a Minnesota corporation, according to the lawsuit. The Goodman Group LLC owns and manages the care of residents at the facility and two other nursing homes in Missoula.
On Wednesday, the Missoulian reached out to the spokesperson for the Goodman Group, Amy Rotenberg.
“Since we have not yet been served with the lawsuit, and in fact just learned of it from the Missoulian, we need time to review before commenting,” Rotenberg said.
'I can't breathe'
In an interview with the Missoulian that took place prior to filing their complaint, Trusty's daughters spoke about how difficult it was to navigate their mother's care during the pandemic. Plute lives in Missoula and Fettig lives in Colorado.
“It’s just sad, it's horribly sad,” Plute said. “With COVID-19, families aren't able to check on their loved ones because they're not allowing people into the nursing homes. I basically had to throw a fit in order to get to go in there before my mom passed away.”
Residents of nursing homes and other senior care facilities have remained connected to family members virtually while visitor restrictions have been in place.
Trusty’s health declined after she contracted COVID-19, and she was taken to Community Medical Center for more treatment. She recovered, although she required monitoring and oxygen therapy at the hospital, according to the complaint. After she was sent back to Village Health and Rehabilitation, she continued her oxygen therapy and was placed on an oxygen concentrator.
After Trusty returned to the facility, the sisters had a hard time contacting their mom, who wasn’t answering her cellphone, Plute said.
“We had to go through other avenues in order to even get somebody to answer us,” Plute said. "You call there (and) nobody even answers the phone."
Fettig said nursing home staff assured her that her mother was fine.
“I feel like they lied to us,” Fettig said. “I feel like they weren't forthcoming with us.”
On Nov. 7, Missoula Emergency Services responded to Village Health and Rehabilitation to assist Trusty. Facility nurses told Missoula Emergency Services personnel that Trusty wasn’t breathing well, according to the complaint filed by the sisters. MES personnel reported that the reason for Trusty’s breathing difficulties was because her oxygen concentrator was shut off and the tubing was disconnected for the oxygen concentrator.
Plute was at the facility the day before her mother died.
“She had no idea who I was,” Plute said. “She just kept saying, ‘I can't breathe, I can't breathe.'”
On Wednesday, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 65, providing liability shields for health care providers, assisted living facilities, businesses, churches and other organizations. The bill would not apply to cases filed before it is enacted. Gov. Greg Gianforte said he plans to sign the bill into law.
At least two other nursing homes in Montana are facing lawsuits over negligence related to the pandemic: Continental Care in Butte and Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation. A California firm, Sweetwater Private Equity, is the parent company for both facilities.
Fettig and Plute are seeking damages for the "suffering" of Trusty and others who contracted COVID-19 or died from it while under the care of Village Health and Rehabilitation, according to the complaint.
The case was assigned to District Judge Jason Marks.
In the lawsuit, the family alleged Village Health and Rehabilitation failed to follow public health COVID-19 guidelines issued by government health agencies, establish and maintain a reasonable infection prevention and control program, maintain adequate staffing levels, properly use personal protective equipment, or inform resident representatives of the deteriorating conditions inside the facility.
Village Health and Rehabilitation also attempted to conceal its neglect using COVID-19 restrictions, according to the complaint.
Trusty moved to the facility after a failed hip replacement surgery in December 2017. When she was admitted she was in "relatively" good health, although the failed surgery made it difficult for her to be mobile, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges the facility did not adequately respond after the pandemic began in March, and did not "act with reasonable promptness when residents or staff displayed symptoms of COVID-19."
The facility failed a COVID-19-focused infection control audit conducted by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services during the outbreak at the facility on Nov. 5, although it passed subsequent state inspections.
"The facility failed to address a lack of the required employee COVID-19 screenings, when staff were working and/or providing resident care, timely and effectively; and staff failed to wear PPE properly while providing care to residents on non-COVID-19 units,” the Nov. 5 survey stated.
The survey also stated that “facility staff working on the non-COVID-19 halls did not complete COVID-19 screenings, tested positive for COVID-19, and were not wearing their PPE appropriately.”
This fall, several employees of Village Health also shared concerns with the Missoulian about the way the facility handled the outbreak.
Trusty was infected with COVID-19 immediately prior to or during this time period, according to the complaint.