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Home Care Workers Cannot Sue Clients with Dementia, Calif. Supreme Court Rules

August 18, 2014

Home care workers injured on the job by a client with Alzheimer’s cannot sue for damages, the California Supreme Court decided on August 4.

Carolyn Gregory, a Los Angeles home care worker, sued her client, Lorraine Cott, for battery following a 2008 incident in which Cott bumped into Gregory from behind while she was doing dishes.

This caused a knife to fall out of Gregory’s hand, which cut her wrist. Gregory said she has lost feeling in two fingers and feels recurring pain from the injury.

In addition to the battery lawsuit, Gregory also sued Cott and her husband, Bernard, for negligence and premises liability. Bernard was not home when the incident took place.

Majority Decision

In a 5-2 decision, however, the court ruled that Gregory had no legal standing to sue, as she had been trained in Alzheimer’s and dementia care and knew the risks involved before entering the Cotts’ home.

“It is a settled principle that those hired to manage a hazardous condition may not sue their clients for injuries caused by the very risks they were retained to confront,” the court’s majority opinion states.

The majority further argued that giving home care workers the right to sue people with dementia (and their family members) would encourage greater institutionalization rates, since California already protects people with dementia from liability in institutional settings.

“We are reluctant to subscribe to a rationale that would encourage the confinement of Alzheimer’s patients in institutions,” the court wrote. “California public policy clearly favors alternative arrangements in which these patients are assisted to remain at home.”

Additionally, the court noted that Gregory successfully filed for workers’ compensation, which provides sufficient reparation for on-the-job injuries.

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote that the case presented an opportunity the state legislature to “improve the safety, training, and protection of workers in home caregiving arrangements.”

Dissenting Opinion

The dissenting opinion, by Laurence Rubin of the state’s Second District Court of Appeal, argues that people are generally liable for injuries that occur in their homes. “Because family members retain control, family members should likewise retain liability,” he writes.

“The Legislature and society at large may be well served by turning their attention to the problems associated with caring for Alzheimer’s patients,” Rubin continues. “Whatever the solutions to those problems, I do not believe they should be at the expense of in-home caregivers who risk a physical injury by working on the front line, typically for low pay and few benefits.”

— by Matthew Ozga

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