(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear California nursing home operator Glenhaven Healthcare’s attempt to avoid a state court lawsuit over a resident’s death from Covid-19, rejecting the company’s attempt to move the case to federal court to gain immunity from such litigation.
The justices rejected Glenhaven Healthcare’s appeal of a lower court’s decision allowing the family of deceased resident Ricardo Saldana to proceed with the lawsuit in California state court.
Saldana died in 2020 at the age of 77 at a nursing home operated by Glenhaven Healthcare in Glendale, California. His family sued the company, accusing it of elder abuse, willful misconduct, negligence and wrongful death.
Adam Pulver, an attorney for the family, said he hoped the decision would prompt the nursing home industry to abandon the “delay tactics”; of trying to move lawsuits related to Covid-19 to federal courts and “allow families to have their day in court.”
The case concerns the scope of the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, a 2005 U.S. law known as the PREP Act that authorized the federal government during a public health emergency to protect companies engaged in providing emergency “countermeasures” from lawsuits.
The shield does not apply in cases of serious injury or death caused by “willful misconduct”. When it still applies, an injured person can instead seek compensation from a government fund, although most claims are denied.
Originally intended to encourage the distribution of vaccines and treatments during a potential bird flu outbreak, the law has been used as a defense by nursing homes in lawsuits accusing them of failing to protect residents from Covid-19 during the pandemic that began in 2020.
Under then-President Donald Trump in January 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, prompted by nursing homes, declared that cases filed in state court involving interpretation of the PREP Act should be moved to federal court.
Federal courts have been divided on the issue. The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the Saldana case that some state claims can remain in state court.
Glenhaven has argued that personal injury lawsuits against entities that provide covid-19 countermeasures belong in federal court. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Hospital Association and the American Health Care Association, a nursing home industry group, weighed in to support its petition to the Supreme Court.
“Forcing litigation over the PREP Act, including the scope of its applicability and the immunity it provides, to play out across 50 state court systems would defeat Congress’ purpose of ensuring uniformity and efficiency,” they said in their letter to the Supreme Court.