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California Supreme Court Rules Alzheimer Patient Can't Be Held Liable for Injury to Home Healthcare Worker

California’s highest court recently ruled that a home healthcare worker could not bring a personal injury claim against a client suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The case is Gregory v. Cott, et al.

As detailed in court documents, Carolyn Gregory was washing dishes while her client, Lorraine Cott, sat at the kitchen table. As Gregory was washing a large knife, Lorraine approached her from behind, bumped into her, and reached toward the sink. When Gregory attempted to restrain Lorraine, she dropped the knife, which struck her wrist. As a result, Gregory lost feeling in several fingers and experienced recurring pain.

In a 5-2 decision, the California Supreme Court stated that caregivers who aide Alzheimer’s patients in private homes are precluded from filing suit for injuries, just like their peers who work in hospitals, nursing home, and assisted living facilities. The bar to liability is based on the premise that caregivers should know that the disease can cause physical aggression and agitation, particularly in its later stages.

As Justice Carole Corrigan further explained in the decision:

California and other jurisdictions have established the rule that Alzheimer‘s patients are not liable for injuries to caregivers in institutional settings. We conclude that the same rule applies to in-home caregivers who, like their institutional counterparts, are employed specifically to assist these disabled persons. It is a settled principle that those hired to manage a hazardous condition may not sue their clients for injuries caused by the very risks they were retained to confront.

Despite the ruling, the majority highlighted that its decision did not preclude liability in situations where caregivers are not warned of a known risk, where defendants otherwise increase the level of risk beyond that inherent in providing care, or where the cause of injury is unrelated to the symptoms of the disease.

The court also called on the California legislature to address the problems associated with Alzheimer‘s caregiving, particularly given that the number of Californians afflicted with this disease can only be expected to grow in coming years. It specifically noted that “training requirements and enhanced insurance benefits for caregivers exposed to the risk of injury are among the subjects worthy of legislative investigation” should be explored.

Not all of the justices agreed with the outcome. The dissenters argued that families of Alzheimer’s patients should bear some responsibility. “Not every patient with advanced Alzheimer’s is violent, and violence is not common during the disease’s early stages. Thus, exposure to violence is not inherent in caring for all Alzheimer’s patients,” Justice Laurence Rubin wrote.