Legal Duties to Keep Residents Safe in Long-Term Care Facilities

When you were a child, you likely heard your parent make the statement “safety first” more than a few times. You may now find yourself in the position of an adult child with some responsibilities to assist in caretaking and in keeping your own parent safe. 

Your parent may be at a juncture in life at which transitioning into some type of long-term care facility make the best sense. For example, your parent may be considering moving to an assisted living community. If that is the case, you understandably may wonder about the legal duty of a long-term care facility, including an assisted living community, when it comes to keeping your parent safe. 

Technical Legal Mandate Regarding Resident Safety

Keeping a person safe in a long-term care facility is governed in part by specific laws and regulations as well as by what is known as a legal doctrine called premises liability. Every state has specific laws that set forth what a long-term care facility must do to keep residents safe. In addition, a county or municipality might also have ordinances that dictate what a long-term care facility must do in the way of resident safety. The purpose of this article is to discuss the overarching doctrine of premises liability. 

Definition of Premises Liability 

The doctrine of premises liability can hold the owner of a long-term care facility responsible for any injuries, damages, and losses arising out of an accident at such an establishment. 

Reasonably Safe Condition

At the heart of the doctrine of premises liability is the requirement of a long-term care facility to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. A reasonably safe condition means that the long-term care facility must rectify hazards on the premises (inside and outside) that present a risk of harm to residents, employees, and visitors. 

In addition, a long-term care facility has a legal duty to be reasonably aware of the existence of any hazard on the premises. In other words, even if the management or staff of a long-term care facility lacked actual knowledge of a hazard at the property, the long-term care center might still be responsible for injuries stemming from that hazard. A long-term care facility would be responsible if that entity reasonably should have known of the existence of the hazard or danger that resulted in an injury accident. 

Reasonably Safe, Not Absolutely Safe

A long-term care facility does not have the legal duty or obligation to make a building and its surroundings perfectly safe. Perfection is not possible in a real world setting. Rather, a long-term care facility must keep its property reasonably safe for residents, employees, and visitors. 

Reasonably safe admittedly is somewhat of a subjective term. What it essentially means is that a long-term care facility must take those steps necessary to keep its property safe that a similarly situated long-term care center would do in like circumstances. Simply put, a long-term care facility must take those steps to keep its property safe that would be done at another center of the same type in the same situation.

Four Part Test Regarding Responsibility of a Long-Term Care Facility for Injury Accident

According to the doctrine of premises liability, four elements must be met or satisfied in order for a long-term care facility to be legally responsible for injuries sustained by a resident as the result of an accident at the center. These are:

  • Legal duty
  • Breach of legal duty
  • Breach of legal duty caused accident and injuries
  • Resident sustained actual injuries

Legal Duty of Long-Term Care Facility

A long-term care facility has a legal duty to keep its residents reasonably safe. (This has been discussed a moment ago.) The reality is that if a long-term care facility is in operation, that enterprise has a legal duty to keep residents reasonably safe. 

An example of a legal duty might involve a stairway at a long-term care facility. The center has a legal responsibility to keep the steps in good repair.

Breach of Legal Duty

In order for a long-term care facility to be legally responsible for an injury accident, there must be a breach of the legal duty referenced a moment ago (and discussed in greater detail previously). The staircase hypothetical is useful to describe a breach of a legal duty.

If one of the steps in a staircase becomes damaged and, as a result, dangerous, a breach of legal duty can occur. If the long-term care center fails to take action to rectify the damaged step in a reasonable manner, the legal duty would be considered to have been breached. Therefore, if a resident is involved in an accident because of the damaged step, the long-term care facility would bear responsibility for any injuries, damages, and losses sustained by a resident.

Breach of Legal Duty Caused Accident and Injuries

The third element involves a demonstration that the breach of a legal duty caused the accident and injuries. Legally speaking, the cause of the injuries must be a reasonably foreseeable result of the breach of duty. For example, a resident who falls because of the damaged step and breaks her hip would be considered a reasonably foreseeable accident and associated injury. Thus, the accident and injury would be considered legally caused by the breach of the legal duty.

On the other hand, consider a resident of a long-term care facility who is nowhere near the accident scene, was not injured on the staircase, and did not see the accident happen. Suppose that individual had a mild heart attack, seemingly happening when that person was told about the accident. 

The injury – the mild heart attack – would not be considered something reasonably foreseeable in this set of facts. Therefore, the long-term care facility’s failure to tend to the damaged step in a timely manner would not be considered a reasonably foreseeable cause of another resident having a mild heart attack in this manner.

Resident Sustained Actual Injuries

The final element is a demonstration that the resident sustained actual injuries in the accident involving the damaged step. For example, a resident broke his leg as a result of an accident arising because of the damaged step. 

Injuries cannot be something speculative. By way of example, a resident cannot speculate that she will have problems with her leg at some time in the future because she tripped as a result of the damaged step. 

If you or a loved one is a resident of a long-term care facility, it is important to report an accident arising out of a situation like this to administration immediately. With that said, you also should contact a lawyer to better understand your legal rights. This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not designed to provide you with legal advice or guidance.