Several years ago an Arkansas man named Kenny was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. As a result his mother devoted her time and resources to his daily care. Eventually, she was diagnosed with cancer. Because she had little money and could not look after her son while undergoing cancer treatments, she placed her son, in his 40s, in a long-term care facility run by the State of Arkansas. Because he was largely immobile, Kenny remained in a hospital bed with an intercom he could use to contact the nurse’s station if he had any problems. Charts showed he was regularly fed, given water, and provided care. Everything seemed to be going well. Then one day Kenny’s ventilator tube connected through a hole in his throat somehow came detached. Gasping desperately for breath, he pushed the intercom button next to his bed and told the nurse down the hall there had been an accident. Then, he called a second time. It took the nursing staff 20 minutes to respond to Kenny’s plea for help. They found him unconscious, lying in his bed. He was taken to a hospital, where he later died.
Kenny’s mother lovingly cared for him for 17 years. Kenny lasted just 27 days in the state-run long-term care facility. Kenny Kendrick died because someone failed to take care of him. Kenny’s death was not the fault of any one person. The facility failed. Nurses testified that the facility was understaffed. In most cases, the facility would be sued, but because this particular facility was run by the State of Arkansas, his mother could not file a traditional lawsuit. She hired an attorney and filed a claim with the Arkansas Claims Commission that reviews injuries and deaths in state facilities. The commission decided that a fair settlement would be to provide $320,000 to Kenny’s estate. The Commission asked the Arkansas Legislature to give Lanelle $320,000 in noneconomic damages for wrongful death, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and negligence.
A legislative committee convened in Little Rock to review the case and authorize the $320,000. I attended the meeting to see what our pro-life lawmakers would do. I sat with Kenny’s mother and her attorney while lawyers for the State of Arkansas produced medical charts showing Kenny was well cared for. When they were done, the attorney for Kenny told the committee, “These same medical charts also show Kenny was given a snack, a drink of water, and dinner—after he died. Do you really think the medical charts are trustworthy?” The discussion should have ended there. Instead lawmakers began haggling about the quality of Kenny’s life and the amount of money the state had spent on his care. One asked about how much longer Kenny would have lived. One lawmaker advocated a settlement of $180,000. Another told me privately that he didn’t think the State should award the family any money at all. In the end, legislators voted to give Kenny’s mother and the rest of his family $250,000.
It’s shameful the Arkansas Claims Commission thought $320,000 was all the state ought to owe for a clearly preventable death. Our lawmakers could have voted to give her much more. Instead they gave her less. That $250,000 does absolutely nothing to penalize the State of Arkansas or the facility that caused Kenny’s death. It doesn’t provide justice for his family. As far as I know, the facility where Kenny died hasn’t made any changes or been reprimanded in any way. For the State of Arkansas, Kenny’s tragic death might as well be a statistic, and the money it paid his mother is just part of the cost of doing business.
People like Kenny and his mother are part of the reason Family Council Action Committee has spent the past 15 years opposing proposals like Issue 1 that limit the amount of money people can collect when they or their loved ones are injured or killed due to negligence. Issue 1 will appear on the ballot this November and voters will decide whether or not to add it to the state constitution.
Imagine if Kenny had been in a privately owned nursing home instead of a state-owned facility. His family could have sued and held the nursing home accountable under current Arkansas law. However, if Issue 1 passes, that same private nursing home will be shielded because the legislature can declare medical charts like the ones falsified by the State inadmissible in court as evidence, and the cap on noneconomic damages will be $500,000 or less.