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Ptaszynski v. Atlantic Health Sys., Inc.

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

March 20, 2015

MARTHA C. PTASZYNSKI, individually, and as executor of the ESTATE OF REGINA PTASZYNSKI, deceased, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
ATLANTIC HEALTH SYSTEMS, INC., d/b/a MT. KEMBLE REHABILITATION AT MORRISTOWN MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, Defendant-Appellant

Argued November 18, 2014

Approved for Publication March 20, 2015.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-7968-07.

Anthony Cocca argued the cause for appellant ( Bubb, Grogan & Cocca, L.L.P., attorneys; Mr. Cocca and Michael S. Bubb, of counsel; Katelyn E. Cutinello, on the brief).

Barry R. Sugarman argued the cause for respondent ( Sugarman Law, L.L.C., attorneys; Mr. Sugarman, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges YANNOTTI, FASCIALE and WHIPPLE. The opinion of the court was delivered by YANNOTTI, P.J.A.D.

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[440 N.J.Super. 29] OPINION

YANNOTTI, P.J.A.D.

Defendant appeals from a judgment entered by the Law Division awarding plaintiff damages, prejudgment interest, and attorney's fees and costs, on claims arising from the care provided to Regina Ptaszynski (" Mrs. Ptaszynski" ) at Mt. Kemble Rehabilitation at Morristown Memorial Hospital (" MKR" ). We reverse and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

I.

This matter arises from the following facts. On June 13, 2006, following a fall at her home, Mrs. Ptaszynski was admitted to St. Peter's Hospital (" St. Peter's" ) with a fractured left hip and left elbow. She was eighty-six years old at the time. Prior to her fall, Mrs. Ptaszynski had been suffering from heart disease, high-blood pressure, an abnormal heart rhythm, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and peripheral vascular disease, which is a disease of the arterial blood vessels. Mrs. Ptaszynski had triple-bypass surgery in 1998, and she suffered a stroke in 2000 that left her weakened on her left side.

While at St. Peter's, Mrs. Ptaszynski suffered a severe heart attack which delayed the surgery required to repair her fractured left hip. Mrs. Ptaszynski remained at St. Peter's until June 24, 2006, when she was transferred to MKR. Mrs. Ptaszynski developed pressure sores and a fever at MKR, and on July 19, 2006, she was transferred to Morristown Memorial Hospital (" MMH" ), where the doctors discovered that one of her toes was infected with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (" MRSA" ), a bacteria that is resistant to most antibiotics.

[440 N.J.Super. 30] At MMH, the doctors treated Mrs. Ptaszynski's infection with antibiotics, but on July 30, 2006, her infected toe was amputated. Apparently, Mrs. Ptaszynski's condition worsened. On August 2, 2006, she was placed on a ventilator; however, in accordance with Mrs. Ptaszynski's advance directives, her family members elected to discontinue life support. She died the next day.

On September 18, 2007, plaintiff, who is Mrs. Ptaszynski's daughter and the executrix of her estate, filed a four-count complaint in the Law Division against defendant. In count one, plaintiff alleged that defendant was negligent in the care that it provided to Mrs. Ptaszynski. Defendant's negligence allegedly included the failure to comply with New Jersey's statutes and regulations relating to the care of nursing-home residents; comply with federal regulations applicable to MKR; prevent the development of pressure sores; and prevent and/or treat infections in a timely and appropriate manner. Plaintiff claimed that, as a " direct and proximate result" of defendant's negligence, Mrs. Ptaszynski suffered personal injuries, endured physical pain and suffering and a loss of dignity, and ultimately died.

In counts two and three, plaintiff asserted claims under the Nursing Home Responsibilities and Residents' Rights Act (the " NHA" ), N.J.S.A. 30:13-1 to -17. The claim in count two was asserted pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:13-4.2 and alleged that MKR violated N.J.S.A. 30:13-3(h), which requires nursing homes to comply with all applicable state and federal statutes, rules and regulations. The claim in count three was asserted pursuant to

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N.J.S.A. 30:13-8(a) based on defendant's alleged violations of Mrs. Ptaszynski's right under N.J.S.A. 30:13-5(j) " to a safe and decent living environment and considerate and respectful care that recognizes the dignity and individuality of the resident[.]"

In addition, in count four, plaintiff asserted a claim on behalf of Mrs. Ptaszynski's survivors under the Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 to -6. Plaintiff alleged that, as a result of defendant's wrongdoing, Mrs. Ptaszynski died prematurely and her survivors had sustained economic losses.

[440 N.J.Super. 31] Defendant filed an answer in which it denied liability and asserted generally that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Defendant also asserted various defenses and claimed, among other things, that the provisions of New Jersey's Charitable Immunity Act (the " CIA" ), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 and -8, either barred plaintiff's claims entirely or limited her right to damages. In addition, defendant asserted that the NHA was not applicable because MKR was not a " nursing home."

On November 3, 2011, plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment, seeking a determination that MKR was subject to and was required to comply with certain federal and state statutes and regulations that apply to skilled nursing care facilities and long-term skilled nursing care facilities. Defendant opposed the motion, and argued that these statutes and regulations did not apply to MKR because it is not a " nursing home."

The trial court granted plaintiff's motion. The court determined that MKR met the " very broad definition" of a " nursing home" in N.J.S.A. 30:13-2(c). The court also determined that MKR was a " skilled nursing facility," and was subject to state and federal regulations that applied to those facilities, as well as the statutory and licensing standards for long-term care facilities.

Defendant thereafter filed a motion in limine in the trial court seeking, among other relief, a determination that, if MKR was considered to be a nursing home, defendant was entitled to complete charitable immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 for non-profit entities organized " exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes[.]" Alternatively, defendant argued that if MKR is considered to be a hospital, it is entitled to the limited charitable immunity under N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8, which provides a $250,000 cap on damages caused by the negligence of non-profit entities " organized exclusively for hospital purposes[.]" The judge denied the motion without prejudice, ruling that defendant could file a motion after the trial and seek to mold the verdict on this basis.

[440 N.J.Super. 32] The matter was tried before a jury, which found that defendant was negligent and its negligence " was a proximate cause of harm" to Mrs. Ptaszynski. The jury also found that defendant was liable under the NHA because defendant violated " one or more of the rules, regulations, or State or Federal statutes applicable" to Mrs. Ptaszynski's care, and that such violation " was a proximate cause of harm" to her.

The jury awarded plaintiff $250,000 on the negligence claim, and $250,000 on the claims asserted under the NHA. In addition, the jury awarded Mrs. Ptaszynski's survivors $50,000 on the wrongful death claim. The judge granted defendant's motion and dismissed plaintiff's claim for punitive damages.

Thereafter, defendant filed a motion to cap the damages award at $250,000 pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8. The judge denied the motion. The judge ruled that the limitation on damages in N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8 only applied to the damages awarded on

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the negligence claim, and that award did not exceed the $250,000 statutory cap. The court entered a final judgment for plaintiff, which included an award of attorney's fees pursuant to the NHA. This appeal followed.

II.

Defendant argues that the trial court erred by permitting plaintiff to pursue a claim under N.J.S.A. 30:13-4.2 for a violation of defendant's " responsibility" under N.J.S.A. 30:13-3(h) to comply with applicable state and federal statutes and regulations. Because this argument was not raised below, we ...


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