Loretta Terhune filed the complaint last year against Houser and his management company, Forum Healthcare Group, alleging grossly insufficient care ultimately leading to the death of her father, Morris Ellison.
The victory took place in a Floyd County courtroom and goes down as one of the largest nursing home verdicts in state history. The substantial win is one that the Cartersville firm believes can help change a dangerous trend in long-term care.
"It is a success for us but I think it's a greater success for northwest Georgia," said Mike Prieto, partner at the firm. "My hope is that it will be a wake-up call to the facilities in north Georgia that the community will not accept and it will not tolerate substandard care for the elderly."
Ellison was in residence at Moran Lake, a Floyd County nursing home, for about six months following surgery for a blood clot in his leg.
"Mr. Ellison was there to rehab after having surgery and began to deteriorate almost immediately after he was admitted," Prieto said. "He was dehydrated, malnourished and had a broken hip and received no medical care for the broken hip, which he'd had for weeks to months."
The complaint noted several instances in which Ellison, suffering from several medical conditions including dementia, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, was wounded due to falls from improper care and/or equipment failure. In April 2007, he was taken by nursing home staff to Floyd Medical Center following another fall. Doctors found that Ellison had suffered a hip fracture sometime during his stay. The date of the injury was indeterminable but was clearly not due to his most recent fall. Subsequently moved to hospice care, Ellison died on April 17, 2009, due to complications from the hip fracture.
Houser was found to be siphoning funds from the corporation for his own personal use. The lack of funds resulted in insufficient staff, poor equipment and a lack of food.
"The evidence came out very quickly in court that there was co-mingling of funds. From the onset Mr. Houser testified that he used the facility checkbook as his own personal checkbook," Prieto said. "We could have called literally a hundred witnesses, this could have been a monthlong trial easily. There were numerous instances in which Mr. Houser failed to pay employees. He was bouncing his payroll checks all over north Georgia.
"There were instances where they had one meal worth of food left in the entire facility. It was a house of horrors," he added.
Pictures provided by Perrotta, Cahn and Prieto taken by Terhune showed Mr. Ellison in the care of Moran Lake in a state of emaciation with fecal matter stuck to the wall beside his broken hospital bed.
Prieto has focused the last eight years of his career to long-term care litigation. After visiting a nursing home with a group from his church, Prieto was given the opportunity to work on several trials for long-term care, leading to his specialization in the field. He currently serves as a Judge Advocate General and captain in the Georgia Army National Guard 48th Infantry Combat Brigade.
"I just returned from Afghanistan and the treatment that Mr. Ellison received falls below that of the way we treat our POWs in Afghanistan," he said. "We see this type of abuse on a regular basis. ... We see, to a lesser degree but yet still inexcusable, how corporate greed affects the quality of patient care and it simply boils down to profits over patients."
At times, three to four staff members were left to care for hundreds of residents during a 12-hour shift, Prieto said. Houser is still facing federal charges for taking tens of millions of dollars from Medicaid and Medicare. Trying the wrongful death case with Prieto was Travis Little, attorney with Perrotta, Cahn and Prieto.
"This was a case where it was really financial malfeasance that led to poor care across the board," Little said. "We do see a fair bit of these cases because we tend to get calls from across the state from people who have heard about our firm. It's a really specialized practice and so we do get to see probably more of these cases than a lot of people, and so we know what's going on out there and it's kind of depressing.
"Hopefully we can make a difference by sending the message that it's more costly to provide poor care and cut corners here and there than it is to just do it right from beginning to end."
Houser's federal income filings have ballooned since he first took over operation of the nursing homes under the management of Forum Healthcare Group, Prieto said, from about $300,000 to a current figure between $20 million and $100 million. However, a day after the trial began, Houser filed for bankruptcy which was stayed for the continuation of litigation. Although the move is thought by Prieto simply as an attempt to delay proceedings, the outcome of payment is still unknown.
"We told [Terhune], there may never be any money there, there may never be anything to get. And she said, 'I don't care, it's about holding him accountable, it's about the truth coming out.' And really the civil trial is an effective way to do that, I think, and in this case we did it and it was satisfying," Little said.
The successful verdict was gratifying not only for its size but also for its venue, Little said. Receiving a guilty verdict in medical malpractice within a strong medical community with medical professionals on the jury lends credit to their plight, Prieto said.
"Rome right now is ranked as the number one small city in the country for medical care. It also has more doctors per capita than any city in the state of Georgia," Prieto said. "Traditionally that would be a very bad venue or forum for a medical malpractice case. However, when we had a jury pool of so many people who themselves or their immediate family or close friends were involved in medical care, I think they were appalled to hear what had been going on 3.2 miles from Floyd Medical Center. And this man suffered with a fractured hip, that was a severe fracture, for weeks or months with no medical care when he was less than 4 miles from a level-two trauma center.
"That just shouldn't happen in this country."