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[whitespace] Guardian's 'no-contest' plea clears way for local lawsuits

Los Gatos--Almost a year to the day after Guardian Post Acute Services Inc. was indicted, the corporate nursing home chain pleaded no contest to six counts of elder abuse on Wednesday, May 24.

The no-contest plea spells the end of Guardian's control over four Santa Clara County nursing homes, including Guardian of Los Gatos on Samaritan Drive. Under federal law, convictions of elder abuse can disqualify a facility from receiving Medicare funds, without which the facility can't operate, according to a Guardian spokesman.

The company also has to pay a $120,000 fine and compensate victims.

The ruling comes a year after Santa Clara County's District Attorney's office filed six counts of elder neglect and abuse following a three-month criminal investigation. The investigation began with an acute-care hospital report of maggots found around the feeding tube of a woman transferred from Guardian.

"It's a victory for society as a whole," Deputy District Attorney Randy Hey said. He added that the ruling's provision that calls for federal monitoring of all Guardian facilities would make Guardian the "most scrutinized" nursing home corporation in the country. Guardian is the first corporate chain of nursing homes to be prosecuted for elder abuse and neglect.

Both Guardian of Los Gatos and Guardian of San Jose will be sold or begin shutting down within the next 90 days. If the company can't get the facilities under the control of a new operator within 90 days, the 200 patients will be transferred to other Guardian sites. There is no word on the fate of facility staff at this time.

Guardian's CEO Robert Pierce referred all questions to spokesman Kevin Elliot. Elliot said the company was "really glad to have it resolved." He noted that, since the charges were filed, Guardian had committed no violations and was now ranked in the top five percent of nursing homes.

Jeff Spencer, whose father Stanley died from infections acquired at Guardian, said he was glad the criminal case was finished. Spencer rejected the $20,000 offer Guardian made for compensation, and is pursuing his own civil case.

"Under the circumstances, with what happened to my father in that so called 'rehabilitation hospital,' $20,000 is an absurdity," he said.

Stanley Spencer was admitted to Guardian in July 1996, after breaking his hip. He contracted pneumonia shortly after being admitted and was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital. Upon readmittance to Guardian, Spencer deteriorated rapidly. "That's when the real atrocities occurred," Jeff said.

Back at Guardian, Spencer developed bad ulcers on both heels, but doctors were not notified of his worsening condition until Spencer developed a fever. A day later Jeff visited his father and found excrement caked on his back. Spencer was transferred back to a hospital where blood tests showed he had a high level of infection, severe dehydration and feces-contaminated bedsores.

Six months later, Spencer was dead.

"He lingered horribly sick for six months from the sores and infections he acquired at Guardian," Jeff Spencer said. "Everything in his body was infected. Basically he wasted away and died rotten."

San Jose attorney Allen Fleishman represents Jeff Spencer and several other Los Gatos Guardian patients whose cases made up the DA's case against the company. With the county's case closed, Fleishman can now pursue wrongful death cases under state laws regulating nursing home care.

"It's good news for the civil cases," Fleishman said, "because it reopens the statute of limitations. We can move forward now."
Nathan R. Huff

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Web extra to the June 1-7, 2000 issue of Metro.

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