Nurse Enters No Contest in Elder Abuse Case

Male Doctor Giving the Thumbs Down Sign with His Hand Isolated on a White Background.

Male Doctor Giving the Thumbs Down Sign with His Hand Isolated on a White Background.

In a blow to the ethical image nurses should all display, another care provider is found to be less than caring. A nurse identified as Rebecca LeAn Smith, 39 has pleaded no contest on Thursday in providing substandard care to a 77 year old Placerville nursing home woman. The allegations, discussed below are simply shocking. This case is reverberating across the state.

The Plea Was Felony Elder Abuse

Many don’t know that elder abuse is a crime, as well as a civil wrong that a victim, or their family can sue upon. Smith pleaded no contest to felony elder abuse and agreed to help prosecutors in a criminal case against her former supervisor. Of course, we attorneys know that any findings are res judicata, or decided as law of the case in a future civil action, so this is a real blow to the insured parties, who either knew or should have been aware of the abuse.

Smith returned from her Louisiana home to El Dorado County to enter the negotiated plea with California’s attorney general, for her role in 2008 leading to the death of Johnnie Esco of Cameron Park. According to documents Esco’s husband and family visited her daily. Over a 13 day period her health rapidly deteriorated at the El Dorado Care Center in Placerville.

Esco died at Marshall Medical Center on March 7, 2008. Her family settled a civil lawsuit with the former owner of the nursing home, Horizon West Healthcare, Inc. of Rocklin. So in this case, if there was a general release, that would mean that all parties in a civil action would be dismissed out of any future claims by the survivors.

The California Attorney General Threw the Book At Palmer and Smith

The California attorney general took legal steps four years after Esco’s death to charge Smith and the former director of nursing Donna Darlene Palmer, 58 with felony elder abuse. The charges included the special allegation of “inflicting great bodily injury.” In cases of victims over the age of 70 this adds five years to a prison sentence.

The preliminary hearing for the nurses’ was scheduled for Thursday in El Dorado Superior Court, where Smith’s attorney agreed to a deal. Palmer’s attorney was granted a postponement in the case. Smith said in a statement after the hearing, she had responsibility and she has to own up to her responsibility. She said there were things that were missed and things that could have been done better. Smith, the mother of five said her “heart aches” and will return to Louisiana until she is sentenced in January.

Attorney For Palmer Says No Discovery Evinced any Crimes

Attorney Patrick K. Hanly of Sacramento, Palmer’s lawyer, said he was surprised by Smith’s plea and there was no evidence from discovery that she committed a crime. Hanly said his client is preparing to go to trial. The plea agreement is a positive step, Deputy Attorney General Steven Muni said, who is prosecuting the case.

Don Esco who died October 8th, worked closely with Muni for months after the death of Jonnie Esco, his wife of almost 61 years. Don Esco died at the age of 82 after undergoing surgery to relieve chronic back pain. Don Esco a retired Air Force veteran pressed for justice in criminal court for the death of his wife, and due to his declining health was permitted to testify before the court in August. He said in a statement that he was “living on borrowed time” and was concerned he would not see the conclusion of the criminal case.

Defendant Smith Is a Working Mother

According to Muni, the plea agreement by Smith is in accordance with Don Esco’s wishes, as he regarded Smith as a working mother, attempting to make ends meet for her children. Muni said Esco felt “considerable compassion” for Smith.

Esco’s assessment of Horizon West management and Donna Palmer was quite different, Don blamed them for his wife’s death. In 2010 he settled for approximately $3 million in a civil suit, in which he accused the company of under staffing the facility to maximize profits. In 2011 Horizon West Healthcare Inc. sold 27 of its nursing homes, including El Dorado Care Center to a San Marcos based chain, which changed the name of the Placerville facility.

The Decedent Suffered From Dementia

Johnnie Esco suffered from dementia and the state’s criminal case contends that both nurses failed to provide proper care or to sufficiently supervise staff members, which were caring for Esco, who was sent to the facility in 2008 to recuperate, after being hospitalized for pneumonia.

Johnnie Esco died approximately 17 hours after being transported to the hospital, after developing a severe fecal impaction at the nursing home. The hospital staff documented injuries that Don Esco had found two days prior to his wife being admitted to the hospital, which included bruising along Jonnie’s chin, jaw line, chest and wrist. There was also a wound on her right pinkie finger.

Smith pleading no contest, is the same as a guilty plea, and has agreed to 270 days in jail, which will be suspended, in trade for her full cooperation. The special allegation has been dismissed against Smith, who at the time was a licensed vocational nurse.

According to court documents Smith agreed to testify against Palmer, if called. The plea agreement includes, Smith performing 200-300 hours of community service and comply with any decision of the California vocational nursing licensing board. Smith said that she has not worked in nursing since mid-2010, due to burnout and has focused on raising her children. Months ago, Smith agreed not to perform official nursing duties, pending the outcome of the criminal case. Palmer received approval to continue working, but not to provide any hands-on care for patients. She is working as a consulting nurse for a group of nursing homes.

The Nurse Blames High Patient Caseload?

Basically, it looks as though the nurses in some of these homes become cynical and hardened. During Johnnie Esco’s stay at the nursing home, Palmer was a registered nurse and director of nursing at the El Dorado Care Center. Thursday a crying Smith said that she accepts responsibility, but did have a ‘high patient caseload.”  She told us that her and the other nurses felt overwhelmed. Ehline Law Firm PC mourns for the loss of the survivors, and warns the public against these sorts of homes on his portal website.