The California Supreme Court ruled today that a home health care worker who was injured by a patient with Alzheimer’s disease can’t sue the patient and her husband.
The court said by a 5-2 vote that lawsuits by workers hired through an agency to care for dementia sufferers in their homes are barred by the doctrine of assumption of risk.
Under that doctrine, people who work in inherently dangerous occupations or engage in hazardous sports are considered to have assumed the risk of being injured.
“It is a settled principle that those hired to manage a hazardous condition may not sue their clients for injuries caused by the very risks they were retained to confront,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the majority opinion.
The court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Carolyn Gregory, a home health care aide hired by Bernard Cott in 2005 to care for his elderly wife, Lorraine Cott, a longtime Alzheimer’s disease patient, in their home. He told Gregory that his wife was sometimes combative and might bite, kick or flail her arms.
On Sept. 4, 2008, Lorraine Cott, then 85 and weighing 100 pounds, pushed against Gregory as she was washing dishes and, according to Gregory, started to grab for a large knife the worker was washing.
Gregory dropped the knife and the tip stabbed her wrist, causing her to lose sensation in two fingers and a thumb and to suffer recurring pain.
Gregory received worker’s compensation through the agency that employed her, but also sought to sue the couple in court for alleged negligence in failing in a duty of care toward her.
In a previous ruling in a different case in 1994, a state appeals court said the assumption of risk doctrine applies to nursing home staff members who are injured by an Alzheimer’s disease patient.
In today’s decision, the court majority said the same rule should apply to home health aides caring for such patients.
Corrigan noted that the ruling applies to in-home workers who are warned of known risks and who are hired through an agency.
The court made no decision on whether the doctrine of assumption of risk applies to helpers hired directly by a family.
Corrigan added, “We encourage the Legislature to focus its attention on the problems associated with Alzheimer’s caregiving.
“Training requirements and enhanced insurance benefits for caregivers exposed to the risk of injury are among the subjects worthy of legislative investigation,” Corrigan wrote on behalf of the majority.
In a dissent, Justices Laurence Rubin and Kathryn Werdegar said they believed families should be held liable because they have extensive control over the workplace situation created in their homes.
Rubin, an appeals court justice temporarily assigned to the high court, wrote that he agreed that the Legislature should turn its attention to problems of caring for Alzheimer’s disease patients.
But he wrote, “Whatever the solutions to those problems, I do not believe they should be at the expense of in-home caregivers who risk a physical injury by working on the front line, typically for low pay and few benefits.”