Home health workers hired to care for unruly Alzheimer's patients may not sue them or their families for injuries inflicted by the patients, the California Supreme Court decided Monday.
In a 5-2 decision, the state's highest court said employers have no liability as long as the caregiver was warned of the risks and the injury was caused by symptoms of the disease. Workers voluntarily assume the risk of violent injury in caring for patients with the brain disease, the court said.
"Those hired to manage a hazardous condition may not sue their clients for injuries caused by the very risks they were retained to confront," Justice Carole A. Corrigan wrote for the court.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit a healthcare worker filed against a West Los Angeles couple. Bernard Cott hired an agency in 2005 to help him care for his wife, Lorraine, who was 85 and suffering from Alzheimer's, at their home.
The agency assigned Carolyn Gregory to the Cott home. Gregory knew that Lorraine was combative and prone to biting, flailing, kicking and scratching, the court said.
In 2008, Gregory was washing dishes when Lorraine bumped her from behind and reached into the sink. In trying to restrain her, Gregory was cut by a knife she had been washing. She lost sensation in a thumb and two fingers and suffered persistent wrist and hand pain, according to her lawyer.
Gregory obtained workers' compensation benefits but also sued the Cotts, who died last year. The couple's homeowner insurance company has been defending the case.
The court called the ruling in favor of the homeowner "consistent with a strong public policy against confining the disabled in institutions."
"If liability were imposed for caregiver injuries in private homes, but not in hospitals or nursing homes, the incentive for families to institutionalize Alzheimer's sufferers would increase," Corrigan wrote.
The court invited the Legislature to examine whether new laws might be needed to protect home health workers. The number of Californians with Alzheimer's will swell in the coming years, and lawmakers may want to consider training requirements and enhanced insurance benefits for those hired to care for such patients, the court said.
Although the majority said the ruling was limited to home health workers trained and employed by an agency, two dissenting justices said it also would deny compensation to workers hired directly by families and others who might not be covered by workers' compensation.
"The court's decision today weakens the link between control and accountability by relieving the family from needing to be concerned about dangers to the in-home caregiver so long as those dangers arise from the family member's Alzheimer's disease," wrote 2nd District Court of Appeal Justice Laurence D. Rubin, temporarily filling a vacancy on the high court. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar signed Rubin's dissent.
Alexander J. Petale, Gregory's lawyer, said the ruling would have "negative" consequences.
"It allows homeowners to shirk their duties as to rendering their homes safe for those caring for Alzheimer's patients," Petale said.
An attorney for the homeowners could not be reached for comment.