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Originally published Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Emeritus lawyers up for appeal of verdict

The nation’s largest operator of assisted-living facilities, Emeritus, has hired top lawyers in its bid to overturn a $23 million verdict in a woman’s death.

Seattle Times business staff

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Emeritus is bringing in some big guns in an attempt to overturn the big verdict handed down by a California jury in the case of an 81-year-old woman who died of pressure wounds she developed in one of the company’s assisted-living facilities.

The Seattle company, the nation’s largest operator of assisted-living facilities, has engaged top East Coast attorneys from the powerhouse law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom to argue that the $22,963,943.81 punitive damage award is unconstitutional and unjustified.

The new legal team includes Clifford Sloan, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and experienced appeals litigator who has argued six cases before the nation’s highest court.

Skadden is the fifth law firm to represent Emeritus in the case of Joan Boice’s 2008 death, according to court filings by plaintiff’s attorney Lesley Anne Clement.

Clement told the court that in addition to the ordinary legal legwork and preparation by her small firm, hours were piled up dealing with Emeritus’s lawyer substitutions and the company’s approach to turning over evidence, which she calls “obstreperous in the extreme.” She itemized out-of-pocket costs of more than $690,000 and a bill of $3,298,307 for work by four attorneys.

Emeritus has bigger concerns than whether it pays the plaintiff’s legal fees.

It wants the judge to overturn the punitive-damages verdict, or better still, order a new trial.

Its attorneys told the court that “the plaintiffs paraded before the jury all manner of conduct unrelated to the specific harm sustained by Ms. Boice.” It claims the jury was affected by Clement’s “inflammation of anti-corporate bias.”

Emeritus has asked the judge to set aside the massive punitive-damages award on the grounds that it is “grossly excessive” under Supreme Court precedents and out of proportion based on state law.

The company also claims it should get a new trial because the jury wasn’t told about the limit California places on compensatory damages; Boice’s family was awarded $3.875 million in damages for pain and suffering, which the judge reduced to the $250,000 allowed under state law.

A hearing is scheduled in Sacramento for May 31.

In a statement supplied Friday, company spokeswoman Karen Lucas said Emeritus provided appropriate care to Boice and that “the result of the trial reflects a continuing culture of suspect lawsuits filed by plaintiff attorneys who seek to undermine the value and commitment that senior-living companies like ours deliver.”

The post-verdict jousting in the case is likely just the prelude for an extended appeals process, judging by a much smaller case that provided some material for the Boice litigation.

In 2008 the interim executive director of the Emeritus facility in El Paso, Texas, won a $128,500 jury verdict against the company for forcing her out because of complaints about understaffing and lack of training. Emeritus carried its appeals all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and its final argument wasn’t rejected until October 2012.

— Rami Grunbaum:

206-464-8541 or rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

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