Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jury says woman did prove mistreatment

“Get a lawyer and prove it,” was the challenge an 86-year-old Coeur d’Alene woman faced from corporate heads 18 months ago when her family became alarmed that she may have been robbed and overmedicated at a Coeur d’Alene retirement home.

On Thursday, an almost quixotic quest for justice ended when a jury – after a nine-week trial – awarded Lucille Huber more than $3 million in punitive damages to be paid by a former manager of Fairwinds Retirement Community and from Leisure Care, the parent company, based in Bellevue, Wash., that owns retirement homes throughout the West.

Leisure Care and Fairwinds, 2340 W. Seltice Way, were ordered to pay $1.5 million each in damages, and former Fairwinds manager Mary Jane Vann is to pay $30,000. Former Fairwinds marketing director Mary Ward is to pay $3,500. Huber was also awarded $65,000 in other damages and restitution.

A number of residents and former residents – or their families and friends – began complaining about Fairwinds in May 2003. There were reports about residents being improperly medicated, being manipulated to turn away from family and of improper access to personal finances. What some families found especially frightening, they have said, was learning that the manager who took their complaints – Vann – was a key player in the manipulation and mistreatment of Fairwinds residents.

Vann was fired in June 2003 for her failure to have proper Idaho documentation to manage a retirement center. She later confessed to stealing jewelry or skimming money from savings accounts of Fairwinds residents – including Huber – and was sentenced on grand theft charges.

Coeur d’Alene attorney Ray Kolts said Vann’s conduct was outrageous, but he became more concerned that nobody in the parent company seemed to notice or care.

During the marathon trial, “We kept making the point that the corporation was not even looking at what was happening at Fairwinds when Mary Jane was running the place because she kept it full and profitable, and that was all they cared about,” Kolts said.

Shortly after the complaints arose in the spring of 2003, senior management at Leisure Care met to discuss how to handle the complaints from the six residents, Kolts said. One of the earliest pieces of evidence he acquired in the lawsuit was a memo written by Leisure Care Vice President Bill Fenner from that meeting outlining the company’s strategy on how to handle each complaint.

“They called these people ‘Players 1 through 6.’ No names or anything,” Kolts said. “When it came to our client they decided ‘Get a lawyer and prove it.’ Those were his exact words in the memo.

“So … she did.”

Kolts said he was thinking of his own 96-year-old mother, a resident in a group home, when he and his wife Kathy decided to take the case.

“It scared me to think people might take advantage of her the way Ms. Huber was,” Kolts said. “I’m glad I took this case.”

He said he hopes the large punitive award will force Leisure Care – and the industry – to pay closer attention to care and not just to profits.

“Leisure Care has a wonderful policy manual that outlines how to run the place. But they didn’t follow it. All they cared about was 100 percent occupancy,” Kolts said.