COVID-19 laws meant to protect healthcare workers could affect wrongful death lawsuits
NEW HANOVER COUNTY (WWAY) — A law tied to North Carolina’s State of Emergency is meant to protect frontline workers and healthcare facilities during the pandemic. Now, it’s possibly blocking families seeking justice in wrongful death lawsuits.
“It is one of the most unjust things going on in North Carolina right now,” said NC Advocate for Justice President John McCabe. “There is virtually no remedy. And no way of holding these wrong doers accountable.”
It started as a bill to keep frontline workers safe from wrongful death suits during COVID-19, while they tried to navigate a global pandemic. The immunity law shields healthcare facilities from lawsuits if injuries or deaths occurred from circumstances relating to the pandemic.
“It morphed into something much greater than that,” McCabe continued. “Basically, it provides immunity to any medical provider, any health system, any nursing home as long as they can show their care was somehow affected by COVID.”
In 2020, a Spring Arbor Assisted Living resident with dementia and a history of violence entered 80-year-old Garland Garrett’s room at night. He brutally beat Garrett while he slept. Garrett’s family says he died unnecessarily painful death just a few days later.
The family filed a lawsuit in 2021, wanting to hold Spring Arbor and its parent company, HHHunt, responsible.
“The whole concept of all our regulations, of our standard of care, of everything is to discharge patients when the family can’t handle them,” explained the Garrett family’s attorney, Joel Rhine. “And in fact, a lot of the staff had warned that somebody was going to get hurt.”
HHHunt and Spring Arbor are using the immunity law, attempting to dismiss the case on grounds that they were affected by COVID-19. When asked for comment, they provided this statement:
“Unfortunately, HIPAA laws prevent us from telling our side of the story except in court but we believe the evidence will justify the defenses we have asserted.”
The law is still in affect across North Carolina. The only way to end it: to end the state of emergency or for the general assembly to rewrite and clarify the statutes.
According to NC Representative Deb Butler, “I’ve not yet heard that conversation, it might be an appropriate time to do that. Now that COVID seems to be somewhat under control.”
Rhine asks the public to reach out to their North Carolina Representatives and Senators, hopeful they’ll review the laws (North Carolina General Statutes §§ 90-21.131 to 90-21.134) and clarify its meanings.