A nursing home or elderly care facility may be sued if a resident is injured on their premises, but what happens when residents wander off? A nursing home can be liable for negligence when a resident is allowed to "elope" or wander from the facility, and suffers some kind of harm as a result. This article discusses the different scenarios in which a nursing home may be held liable and when it may not.
As in all cases where the legal fault concept of negligence applies, the defendant (here, the nursing home) owes the plaintiff (the resident and his or her family) a general duty of "due care."
This means the nursing home must take all reasonable precautions to keep the resident safe from predictable or "foreseeable" harm. If the nursing home fails to do so, and the resident is actually harmed as a result, then the nursing home may be held liable for negligence.
The nursing home can only be found negligent for allowing a resident to wander if it was on notice that the resident had a possibility to do so. The plaintiff in a wandering case must prove that the nursing home either knew or should have known that the resident was suffering from a condition like Alzheimer’s, senility, dementia, an organic brain condition or some other condition that might cause wandering or the resident had displayed a potential to wander in the past. If the resident’s wandering episode was completely unpredictable, i.e. he or she had never displayed any signs of confusion or similar symptoms, the nursing home may be able to avoid liability.
Simply because a resident wanders does not automatically render the nursing home liable. The resident must actually suffer some kind of harm as a result. If the resident is physically injured, dies or disappears completely during the elopement, that is obviously one kind of harm. Another kind is if the resident suffers prolonged exposure to the elements, even if that exposure does not lead to permanent injury. If the resident is otherwise uninjured, the resident’s family may still be able to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress based on the fear and worry they experienced during the elopement.
If the nursing home staff fails to properly evaluate a resident at initial intake or perform periodic evaluations, the nursing home can be held liable for failing to be properly informed of the possibility the resident might wander. In other words, the nursing home cannot purposefully or negligently remain ignorant of the resident’s condition.
A nursing home can be held liable for failing to properly train its staff to detect the possibility of wandering, to monitor residents who might wander, or train to prevent wandering. Similarly, the nursing home might be found liable for hiring staff that management should have known was incompetent or unqualified to detect and prevent wandering.
Even if the staff is properly trained and qualified, the nursing home can still be held liable if they fail to perform their duties. Failing to detect a propensity to wander, failing to monitor a resident, or leaving a resident who might wander unattended for prolonged periods can all lead to liability. Additionally, the nursing home might be found liable for failing to take precautionary measures, such as installing or using an alarm system, properly securing the exits, or allowing the resident to be in an area of the home that prevents proper monitoring and increases the chance of an elopement incident.