Nursing home group calls for immunity from coronavirus lawsuits after thousands of deaths rattle industry

Nursing homes seek legal shield amid pandemic
Nursing homes seek legal shield amid pandemic... 03:54

At least 15 states have passed laws offering some legal protection to nursing homes as the industry prepares for a wave of lawsuits tied to the coronavirus pandemic. In California, a legal battle is potentially being set up between the state's nursing homes and those seeking to hold them accountable for what they call a "crisis."

Scott Akrie said his father, Costello Akrie, was a leader in his community. The 88-year-old died of coronavirus complications in a California nursing home in April. According to his son, he died alone. 

"He was the first person in our family to graduate from college," Akrie told CBS News' Jonathan Vigliotti. "He died six months short of being able to see his grandson graduate college… six months." 

Costello Akrie was admitted to the Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Facility in Northern California for a short recovery stay following a diabetic episode. 

After suffering a COVID-19 outbreak, the facility lost 13 people, including Akrie. At least 69 patients and 33 employees tested positive. 

Scott Akrie said he was told staff members were handling up to 35 patients at a time, without being tested. After his father's death, he hired an attorney in hopes that the outbreak could bring meaningful change to senior care

"I don't want this to happen to anybody again— my mom, my family — we don't want this to happen to anybody else. Because this was just wrong," he said. 

More than 20,000 people who live or work in nursing homes have died of COVID-19, CBS News confirms. At least 733 deaths were California long-term care residents, while 15 were health care workers. 

According to federal records, nearly 62% of nursing homes, including Gateway, were cited for infection prevention and control lapses last year. 

Out of the 10 California facilities with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in residents, seven only received one or two stars on a federal rating scale that looks, in part, at staffing and health care inspections.

"The nursing homes that are suffering the worst problems with the virus are the same homes that have had terrible track records with infection control and with staffing," attorney Mike Dark said. 

Dark works with the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, and said that while the coronavirus is "no question" an "act of God," the destructive outbreaks in California nursing homes is "an act of man."

"Nursing home operators cut staffing to maximize profit. And when you don't have enough staff, it's simply not possible to have good infection control," Dark said.

Dark said that lawsuits are one way of forcing change and holding facilities accountable. 

However, according to Mark Reagan, general counsel for the California Association for Health care facilities, lawsuits would damage, not reform the industry.

"It is very possible that a wave of lawsuits could ultimately wipe out a significant portion of the long-term care profession," Reagan said. 

The group he represents is one of six health care organizations asking Governor Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order granting immunity. 

"We have caregivers who are doing their absolute best every day, against impossible odds," Reagan said, adding that lawsuits "second guessing" those caregivers "would be really unfortunate."