-- Revelations of an undisclosed business deal between the husband of West Virginia’s highest-ranking justice and a lawyer appearing before her are “extremely troubling,” according to a statement from the company that ended up on the losing side of the case.
Executives of HCR Manorcare said they had no idea, until a recent ABC News investigation, that the lawyer who won a $91.5 million verdict in trial court against them was also involved in a million dollar airplane deal with the justice's husband. They said they are now reviewing their legal options.
“The lack of transparency in West Virginia, at least in this instance, is extremely troubling,” said a statement released by HCR ManorCare, which paid out a $38 million settlement in the nursing home abuse case after losing its case in the state’s high court earlier this year. “We are disturbed and alarmed and reviewing all available legal options as events continue to unfold.”
The statement comes on the heels of an ABC News “Nightline” investigative report that revealed for the first time the details of a $1 million Learjet sale involving Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis’ husband, as well as the thousands of dollars that the plaintiff’s attorney helped raise for Davis’s successful 2012 reelection bid.
The sale occurred after a jury had awarded the plaintiffs in the case $91.5 million, and both sides of the case had publicly discussed plans to argue over the massive award before the state supreme court.
Legal experts told ABC News that Davis should have disclosed the business deal before hearing a case involving the lawyer, Michael J. Fuller – just as she had previously disclosed her husband’s ownership interest in the airplane in her personal financial disclosure reports.
“This does not look good for the rule of law,” said James Sample, an expert on judicial ethics at Hofstra University Law School. “A million-dollar sale of an airplane while litigation involving the lawyer who purchases the airplane is pending before the court? Absolutely no question. It’s proper to disclose, and it is improper to not disclose.”
Davis strongly disputed that during a brief interview with ABC News in the hallway outside her chambers in the state capital complex in Charleston.
“With regards to my husband’s plane, let me … be abundantly clear, the plane is owned by my husband, it was sold through a broker, an airplane broker, and I understand that ABC has spoken to my husband, and to the broker,” she said. “Other than that, I have nothing else to say to them. Have a great day.”
When pressed on whether she should have disclosed the business deal between her husband and the lawyer in the case before her, she replied: “Why should I? … I am asking you sir, why should I? … I have no business relationship with him then, or now.”
The Charleston Gazette reported that Davis and her husband, attorney Scott Segal, released a lengthy statement responding to the ABC News report late Tuesday. Neither Segal nor court officials would respond to requests from ABC News for copies of the statement.
According to the Gazette, Davis said she was not aware that she had received $1,000 donations from more than two dozen people with ties to Fuller – many of them from Florida, where he grew up, and Mississippi, where he lives now.
According to the Gazette, Davis said in the statement, “I have never once looked at a list of my campaign contributors. I can’t tell you who did or did not contribute to my campaigns. It is of little interest to me.”
The dispute stemmed from a lawsuit Fuller filed on behalf of Dorothy Douglas, an 87-year-old woman who was admitted in 2009 to the Heartland Nursing Home in Charleston, owned by ManorCare. According to court testimony, Douglas was suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and other health issues. When she arrived there, she was able to walk with help from a walker and could recognize and communicate with her family.
After 19 days in the home, she had become dehydrated, malnourished, bedridden, and barely responsive. Court records indicate she suffered from sores in her mouth and throat that required the scraping away of dead tissue and debris. Less than three weeks later, she was dead. Her doctor said the death was caused by the dehydration she suffered at Heartland. At the request of Douglas’s son, Fuller took the case and sued ManorCare.
“This woman died because people wouldn't pour her a glass of water and help her drink it,” Fuller told ABC News in an interview last month, recalling a line that proved particularly effective with a jury.
On August 5, 2011, the jury returned the massive verdict – $80 million of which resulted from punitive damages meant to send a message to ManorCare. The company, Fuller had successfully argued, had more than $4 billion in annual revenues, but had chronically left the West Virginia nursing home under-staffed. Court records said “witnesses described the conditions as 'horrible' and 'unbearable' due to the low numbers of staff available to care for residents of the nursing home.”
The case headed to the West Virginia Supreme Court with the massive jury award hinging on a question of whether the state’s medical malpractice caps would apply. If they did, the most the Douglas family could expect to collect from the punitive damages would be $500,000.
Davis authored the opinion that upheld $40 million of the jury verdict. ManorCare officials said in a statement after the decision that they were surprised by the decision, and agreed with the strongly-worded dissent written by Justice Allen Loughry, who wrote that the majority opinion struck him as “shockingly result-oriented."
“Without question, the biases and whims of the majority are on full display in its boldly tortured analysis,” Loughry wrote.
“The ABC News story may have revealed some of the motivations to hide and torture that analysis, and it may have exposed a relationship that speaks to the majority's ‘whims’ and ‘biases,’” ManorCare’s statement today said.