On the morning of September 12, 2009, a man (identified only as “Plaintiff”) went missing from Arms Acres, a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. The Plaintiff, in addition to being an alcoholic, also suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to the Court’s decision. Shortly before going missing the Plaintiff became “extremely disoriented, began having hallucinations” and attempted to leave the facility. The Plaintiff apparently succeeded on leaving the facility the next morning – on September 12. Sadly, on October 18, 2009 the Plaintiff’s body was discovered.
The family of the Plaintiff sued Arms Acres based on its violation of Public Health Law – asserting that Arms Acres deprived Plaintiff of certain rights provided to him under the law. Plaintiff also claimed that Arms Acres had a contract with the Plaintiff where the Plaintiff would pay a set fee and, in return, Arms Acres would care for and help rehabilitate the Plaintiff. After conducting the discovery phase of the trial, the Plaintiff’s family amended their lawsuit to seek punitive damages from Arms Acres. Punitive damages are available under Public Health Law Section 2801-d if (1) the patient has been deprived of a right or benefit, and (2) that deprivation is “found to have been willful or in reckless disregard of the lawful rights of the patient.”
Punitive damages are allowed in a situation where the behavior was especially abhorrent or malicious, and not merely casually neglect. Despite a lower court ruling that Arms Acres actions did not “rise to this level”, the Appellate Court disagreed and held that a jury could reasonably find that by allowing a disoriented, hallucinating man to go missing, Arms Acres actions were a “willful” or evidenced “reckless disregard” for his “lawful rights.”