A Nursing Home Tragedy Leads to Bribery - and Justice

Nursing home facilities have a solemn responsibility to protect the lives of those who have been entrusted to their care.

One facility in Arkansas failed that responsibility. As a result, a resident died – and a judge is going to prison.

Here’s more on how a nursing home system failed one of its residents, and how it sought to use the judicial system to shield itself from the consequences of its negligence.

Neglect in the Death of a Resident

On April 7, 2008, at 10:20 p.m., a woman named Martha Bull was found dead in her room at Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, owned by Michael Morton, the owner of several similar entities in Arkansas.

Mrs. Bull had been placed in the facility a week prior to recover from a stroke. She was only supposed to be there for 30 days, and her family anticipated that she would return home after her stay

Three days prior to her death, Mrs. Bull began complaining of pain in her abdomen. However, employees at the facility neither assessed her condition, nor did they contact a physician about her complaints. The only attempt to reach a doctor was a fax sent that day saying that Mrs. Bull was depressed and had signs of “physical distress.” There was no mention of her worsening condition or the visible symptoms.

The physician’s office returned a fax, ordering Mrs. Bull to be sent to an emergency room for further care. But Mrs. Bull was not sent to a facility; she remained in Greenbrier until she died sometime that night.

The fax ordering treatment for Mrs. Bull was not found until 10 a.m. the following day.

A Grieving Family Seeks Justice

The Arkansas Office of Long Term Care, the state’s chief regulatory agency over facilities like the one Mrs. Bull attended, launched an investigation into Greenbrier and found that “The failed practice resulted in immediate jeopardy, which caused or could have caused serious harm, injury, or death to [Mrs. Bull]”, according to a report filed after the investigation.

In short, the facility neglected the resident’s needs for proper documentation and reporting, and as a result of negligence, Mrs. Bull died.

The family, understandably devastated, filed a lawsuit against Greenbrier and its owner, Michael Morton in February, 2012. The case moved to a jury trial, presided over by Michael Maggio, an elected circuit judge for the Twentieth Judicial District in the State of Arkansas.

Bribery, Greed, and Corruption

It did not take long for the jury to assess the facts of the case and reach a decision. On May 16, 2013, the jury returned a verdict for Mrs. Bull’s family – and awarded damages amounting to $5.2 million for the plaintiff.

Such a decision was a monumental victory for families who have battled nursing home facilities and their owners in cases of negligence, fraud, and abuse. However, Morton – and Maggio – weren’t finished.

On June 17, 2013, the defense attorneys for Morton filed a motion for new trial or remittitur, seeking to reduce the damages awarded by the jury. Ten days later, Maggio, the judge presiding over the case, announced his candidacy for a spot on the Arkansas Court of Appeals – while the motion from Morton’s attorneys was still pending.

Just two days later, Maggio was told that a payment of $50,000 from Morton’s business was “on the way” – and a week later, the first payment of $24,000 was delivered to the campaign. Money was specifically funneled to Maggio from a series of PACs created by Chris Stewart, a lawyer in Little Rock. Morton denied knowing Stewart and has denied that the contributions were in any way tied to the trial.

Two days later, Maggio reached a decision: he reduced the verdict from $5.2 million to $1 million in favor of the defendant, his latest campaign donor. It must be noted that $1 million was the exact amount of liability insurance owned by the facility, thus completely protecting the nursing home owner from any personal exposure for the other $4.2 million.

Fall from Power and Justice Served

So often, cases of corruption go unpunished – and undiscovered. This leaves many families seeking justice but never finding it.

Fortunately in this case, an investigation was launched after observers found suspicious connections between Maggio and individuals thought to be associated with Morton. A separate independent ethics investigation uncovered other instances of unethical and illegal activities on behalf of the judge, leading to his dropping out of the race for the Court of Appeals and resigning his position on the bench.

Additionally, Maggio, Morton, and Gilbert Baker (thought to be the middleman between Morton and Maggio) were the targets of a criminal investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The investigators and prosecutors closed in on Maggio, and, facing the realities of the case and the mounting evidence against him, Maggio pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in exchange for reducing the penalty in the civil case – a bribe allegedly paid by the owner of the nursing home in which Mrs. Bull died (and the owner of several other nursing home facilities in the area).

On March 24, 2016, Maggio – almost three years from his decision to break the law – was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

Protecting the Rights of Families in Arkansas

This case – a sordid tale of corruption, negligence, greed, and abuse of power – is an alarming and startling sign of how some in the nursing home industry uses and has used the judicial system for their own benefit.

Every year, families across the nation – not just in Arkansas – face an uphill battle for justice after their family members are hurt or killed while under the care of the facilities to which they have been entrusted. Martha Bull’s family is fortunate in that they were able to find some modicum of justice, but not every family finds success. Many of them never find resolution or justice because of the power of those in the nursing home industry who prefer windfall profits over patient lives and the lengths to which they will go to protect themselves – at the expense of their residents and patients.

If you have a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility, you have a solemn responsibility yourself: Be vigilant and protect your family member. Although many nursing home facilities are responsible, the sad fact is that we cannot trust some in the industry who value profits over the lives of their patients.

As elder abuse attorneys, we fight against these negligent members of the nursing home industry on a daily basis. Our words of caution are simple: abuse happens, in both the nursing home and in the court room. Let the story of Greenbrier and Mrs. Bull be a warning and a call to action for those who trust in facilities to care for their loved ones.

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