News and Events
A Change of Heart
By Katie Boswell
Most people would call this particular work depressing. Elder abuse attorneys Greg Johnson and Jody Moore investigate and prosecute civil patient abuse cases involving nursing homes and care facilities. And while the work is grisly, both lawyers say it is extremely rewarding.
Both Johnson and Moore are former civil defense attorneys who turned their careers around 180 degrees to sue the same entities they once defended. "There's a tremendous need for it," Johnson explained. "[Elderly patients] need advocates."
Government statistics tell a grim story about the elder abuse issue. In February, a Congressional report asserted that one in four nursing homes nationwide has patient care violations. And while most of the problems are related to staffing issues, some of the stories involving abuse are nightmarish.
Moore's decision to become a victim's attorney came out of her own family's ordeal with an elder care facility.
A week after her grandmother was placed in the facility following a stroke, a family member noticed an open and bleeding bedsore that the facility's staff had apparently ignored and allowed to fester. Seven days later, Moore's grandmother passed away enveloped in excruciating and unnecessary pain.
"When my grandmother got sick, I had a change of heart," said Moore, a 1994 Seaver College graduate. "I realized that many of the stories that I heard as a defense attorney were most likely true. I had always thought that perhaps family members exaggerated their stories because they were so close to the circumstances and so emotional about it."
Johnson's empathy for the issue derives from personal experience as well. The 1995 School of Law alumnus has a three-year old daughter, Margaret, who was born with a brain tumor and later diagnosed with severe neurological disorders. "I tell every single one of my clients about Margaret," said Johnson. "People are so overwhelmed by the system, I want them to know that I understand. Like them, I have been at the hospital for days at a time and have been through some of what they are going through."
Perhaps what makes Moore and Johnson such effective prosecutors is their focused attention on the defenseless and their compassion for families coping with such harsh realities. "I have a keen interest in protecting people who are vulnerable," Johnson said.
Moore and Johnson value the time they spend talking with and getting to know their clients. "To me, this is such rewarding work," Moore said. "I spend a lot of time with all my cases, even those that I don't take."
Their work as victim's attorneys involves a great deal of investigation-searching through documents, trying to determine if any have been falsified, and questioning people on why certain actions weren't taken when a patient obviously was in need of care.
"In Ventura County, there is only a handful of attorneys who do this type of work and do it well," Johnson said.
Moore added: "The level of devotion and time and effort this work requires makes it so you can't do it half-heartedly."
In 2001, Johnson and Moore undertook an investigation into the death of Jesse Espinoza, a patient at a local elder care facility. Espinoza had been locked in a room without air-conditioning and only a slight opening in the window. The facility was so understaffed that no one noticed when Espinoza stopped drinking water. After suffering dehydration for up to ten days, he died.
In a precedent-setting case, Johnson and Moore convinced a jury to award $700,000 to the man's family, marking the first time a Ventura County jury has ever awarded damages for elder abuse. The case settled for a confidential amount before returning to the jury for the punitive phase of damages. The settlement turned the media spotlight on to what is becoming a growing national concern-the safety and treatment of individuals in elder care facilities. "This was a story that needed to be told," said Johnson, "publicly on the record."
Added Moore, "Heightened public awareness is what is needed." But it isn't just awareness that Johnson and Moore are after-they are looking to use their cases to make policy changes in elder care facilities or to put the chronic offenders out of business permanently, and they have already seen changes as a result of their work.
In one of their cases, a nursing home employee was wheeling a five-gallon container of boiling water on a cart through the Alzheimer's ward. When the cart hit one of the wheelchairs and spilled, a patient was scalded and covered with third-degree burns. As a direct result of the suit that followed, the nursing home changed the rules for how hot liquids are transported.
In another case, patients were being rationed diapers. Each patient received a certain number of diapers for the day, regardless of their specific needs. One of the women developed such severe diaper rash that her family followed up on the matter, and, subsequently, the allocation of diapers became linked to need.
"Before the California legislature's passing of the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Care Protection Act, relatives of an elder abuse victim couldn't sue for pain and suffering after the patient had died," Johnson explained. "The pain and suffering died with the patient." But after the legislature realized how widespread the abuse had become, they found a way to hit offenders with more than the previous $50,000 penalty fee, which was the maximum citation any watchdog agency could hand down for a death caused by negligence.
"I battle in front of juries to make them see that just because this was an old person does not mean that they deserve less than another human being," Johnson said.
"A person is worthy of dignity just as much on the way into life as on the way out. If this was an infant, they would be climbing over the jury railing to get at these people."
Johnson and Moore clearly value the role that elder care facilities play in society. "There is such a need for these facilities," Moore said. "And I hope someday that quality care puts our practice out of business," added Johnson.
But until the phone stops ringing with new stories and new cases, Johnson and Moore plan to continue their crusade against elder abuse.
This story first appeared in the Pepperdine Voice Magazine, Winter 2003.