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Taking The Caregivers To Court

Seventy-year-old Reba Gregory has still not fully recovered from injuries she suffered in 1995 at Beverly Manor Nursing Home in Eureka, California, reports CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver.

Her daughter, Christine Sandahl, remembers the late-night phone call.

"They told me that my mother had an accident, that she fell out of bed. She had a shattered hip joint, her shoulder was broke, that she had a concussion," she said.

But Christine was suspicious. It was the second time her mother was injured at Beverly Manor.

"They say oh, it's just an accident. What were you doing to cause the accident? Things don't happen by theirself," she said.

Mrs. Gregory's family joined a growing number of Americans who are suing nursing homes. In researching her case, her lawyer discovered a letter to Beverly Manor's management from 20 staffers, complaining they were overworked and over stressed.

At trial, the nursing home insisted it was providing top quality care. However, the jurors saw it differently.

"They weren't taking care of these people as they should," said Louis Pontier. "And I think it was fraud on their part not to take care of them."

After three days of deliberations, the jury came back with a verdict that astounded even Mrs. Gregory's family and her lawyer -- $95 million.

That was just one in a string of multimillion dollar verdicts coming down around the country as the U.S. nursing home population has increased 50 percent in just seven years.

Critics charge that the fast-growing nursing home industry is putting profit ahead of care.

Meanwhile, lawyers flock to seminars on how to sue nursing homes taught by experts like Lesley Clement.

She claims that most of the problems at the homes come because owners simply refuse to spend what it takes to hire enough well qualified workers.

"I don't care what it is; if its a drug case, if its a fracture case, if its a case of bed sores," said Clement. "The bottom line problem that caused it is under staffing."

The industry insists its doing the best it can to provide affordable care and that lawyers are capitalizing on families' frustrations over inevitable accidents and the deterioration that is part of growing older.

"There's an explosion of litigation because many plaintiff's lawyers have found it very profitable," said Paul Willging of the American Health Association.

"For every one of these unwarranted judgements, for every dollar paid out for what are basically honest mistakes, that's one dollar less that can go into quality care," he said.

Recently -- as frequently happens in these cases -- the judge in the Gregory case reduced the verdict to about $3 million. The family accepted but Bverly Manor is appealing. The jurors insist they made their point.

"We're not ignorant," said juror Tammy Johnson. "We knew that was not an amount that Mrs. Gregory of the family would receive. But we just wanted to send a message and let somebody know that this kind of behavior and treatment just wasn't acceptable."

That message has been sent to nursing homes all over the country.

Reported by Rita Braver
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