Total Care Community Living is on the hook for $118 million following a jury verdict reached last week which found the company negligent in allowing a severely disabled man in Macon to be abused by its employees at a day activity.
Plaintiffs attorney C. Brian Jarrard said that the verdict was the largest in Bibb County State Court history. The jury awarded $28 million in compensatory damages and $90 million in punitive damages.
“The jury had heard testimony that the owners had explicitly encouraged abuse, basically saying, ‘Look, do what you’ve got to do. Just don’t let him break our furniture,’” Jarrard said. “The first stage was compensatory, and then we immediately went into the punitive portion and in my estimation it went from terrible to simply reprehensible. I think the jury clearly felt the same way.”
Jarrard and Charles E. Cox Jr. filed a complaint in 2015 on behalf of Betty Gill, the mother of Joseph Allen Cason Jr., a “severely mentally disabled” adult male who was living at Total Care’s facility at the time.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that because plaintiffs had not abided by the five-year statute of limitations by letting the case sit dormant without obtaining an order of continuance, Bibb had no jurisdiction over the case. However, the motion was tossed out a month after.
According to the complaint filed in state court, Total Care routinely transported its mentally disabled residents to a day activity center in Gordon. In 2013, personnel at the activity center took Cason to vote in the city of Gordon elections held that day, where defendant Pamela Whipple Reaves’ sister, Mary Ann Whipple-Lue, was up for re-election as mayor..
Reaves was the owner and operator of the day center used by Total Care. In the punitive portion of the trial, plaintiffs’ counsel called three former Total Care employees, one of which reportedly quit after one week when she saw abuse of an individual and was asked to fabricate a statement on the incident.
Cason, as expert testimony at trial explained, functions at a 4-year-old level and is considered “severely developmentally disabled,” which would make him ineligible and unable to vote. A video recording of the incident showed that Cason was struck 69 times by Total Care employees, including being hit with a belt, punched and slapped, according to court documents.
On top of the physical abuse, an expert psychiatrist testified that the emotional impact of the abuse “will worsen as he ages,” Jarrard said, explaining, “Joey cannot differentiate that he is now safe and cared for. All of his injuries are permanent.”
Counsel for Cason’s mother filed claims under several grounds, including negligent hiring on the part of Total Care, failure to train employees, invasion of privacy, as well as premises liability under OCGA § 51-3-1.
In arguing the award of punitive damages, Jarrard and Cox reasoned that because the facility’s mistreatment of Cason was so brutal, and considering their history with negligence toward patients, the statute governing willful misconduct and wantonness is justified.
“It is entirely appropriate for the jury to award punitive damages against the Defendants in this case pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 to deter them from future wrongful conduct,” the attorneys wrote in their complaint.
Wayne Kendall of Heritage Creek Development in Fayetteville, counsel for the defense, could not be reached for comment.