Lowndes County nursing home loses resident death appeal

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VALDOSTA — An appeals court upheld a multi-million judgment this week against a Lowndes County nursing home found partly at fault in a resident's death, according to court documents.

The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled Thursday against Lowndes County Health Services LLC, which does business as Heritage Health Care at Holly Hill, in its appeal of the final judgment in a lawsuit filed by Gregory Copeland and Marier House in connection to the 2012 death of Copeland's father, Bobby, according to court documents provided to The Times by attorneys for the Copelands. House is the administrator of Bobby Copeland's estate.

In January 2018, Holly Hill was ordered to pay $7.6 million in damages, but fault for Bobby Copeland's death was divided between the nursing home and four parties who weren't part of the trial.

Among the claims Holly Hill made in its appeal were the trial court made an error in rejecting a challenge to the use of a jury strike as well as in denying two requests for "directed verdicts," court documents show. A "directed verdict" occurs when a trial judge orders a judge to render a certain verdict because no evidence exists to the contrary.

The appeal also claims a confusing verdict form was used.

The debate over the jury strike centered on whether a potential juror was stricken for racial reasons, court documents show. The appeals judge ruled against Holly Hill on all four motions, records show.

Bobby Copeland, 71, died of a bowel obstruction, the symptoms of which developed while he was in the facility Oct. 25, 2012, said Caleb Connor, an attorney with Connor & Connor, in a past report.

When a licensed practical nurse asked a physician's assistant if Copeland could be sent to the emergency room, the PA said "no" and ordered tests instead, Connor said. Despite being seen by two registered nurses Oct. 26, he was not taken to the hospital until after the PA arrived later in the morning, he said.

Copeland died of acute respiratory distress syndrome resulting from "aspiration of feculent material" 12 hours after arriving at the hospital, Connor said.

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, claimed ordinary negligence and violation in the standard of care against Lowndes County Health Services, according to the jury verdict form.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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