Altoona personal care home not liable for resident's off-site death caused by drunk driver

By Carrie Salls | Jun 23, 2016

HARRISBURG – The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently affirmed a Blair County court ruling that an Altoona personal care home was not negligent in allowing a resident of the home to leave the premises of his own free will before he was killed by a drunk driver while walking through an intersection in 2010.

Pamela Hackenburg, the administrator of the estate of Frank T. Motyl, filed a lawsuit in July 2011 against Grane Healthcare Co., Altoona Center for Nursing Care, LLC and the Amber Terrace personal care home. Hackenburg claimed Amber Terrace should have known that Motyl tended to walk away from the facility, should have monitored him better and provided the proper support and care to keep the patient from leaving.

Amber Terrace argued, however, that it was not responsible for restricting Motyl’s movements. The Court of Common Pleas of Blair County granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants in August, and Hackenburg appealed that ruling to the superior court.

In its June 3 decision, the Superior Court said a support plan was prepared for Motyl and that a licensed practical nurse and personal care administrator testified that he was “independent and visited with his friends in the community.” 

The administrator said Motyl had gone independently to the Veterans Administration hospital in Pittsburgh for an outpatient procedure the day before he died and that “he took walks on a regular basis.”

“Appellant’s contention that it was reasonably foreseeable that decedent would be struck and killed by an impaired driver at 5:30 a.m. is without merit,” the Superior Court said in its ruling.

“This is a very sad situation,” Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, told the Pennsylvania Record. “It can sometimes be challenging for long-term care facilities to balance the independence of the residents with safety concerns, especially when it involves leaving the building.” 

Smetanka said it is important for each resident’s physical and cognitive abilities to be assessed, and an individualized plan prepared that “helps them maintain as much independence as possible, while still addressing issues related to safety.”

“It’s not an appropriate response for all residents to be locked in the facility,” Smetanka said. “Individualized planning and supports must be implemented.”

Diane Menio, executive director of Center for Advocacy for the Rights & Interests of the Elderly (CARIE), clarified that residents of personal care homes, like Amber Terrace, are expected to not need the level of care required for a patient in a nursing home, where the rules and laws related to a resident leaving the facility may differ.

“(Residents of) personal care homes generally do have the option of coming and going,” Menio told the Pennsylvania Record. “They aren’t locked in.”

According to information provided by Eric Kiehl, director of communications/public affairs for the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, personal care homes in Pennsylvania are regulated by the Bureau of Human Services Licensing under the commonwealth’s Department of Human Services. 

Pennsylvania Code defines a personal care home as “a premises in which food, shelter and personal assistance or supervision are provided for a period exceeding 24 hours, for four or more adults who are not relatives of the operator, who do not require the services in or of a licensed long-term care facility, but who do require assistance or supervision in activities of daily living or instrumental activities of daily living.”

Under the resident rights spelled out in section 2600 of the code “a resident has the right to leave and return to the home at times consistent with the home rules and the resident’s support plan.” 

The code provides the guidelines on how a home must develop a support plan for a resident and requires the support plan to be revised within 30 days of completion of an annual assessment or upon changes in the resident’s needs. The code requires both an initial and an annual assessment of all residents.

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