Federal Court Remands COVID-19 Wrongful Death Suits Filed Against Care Facility

Twenty-three consolidated cases have been sent back to state court for further proceedings after Judge Judith C. Herrera of the District of New Mexico ruled that the federal court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute. The cases were filed last August after residents of the defendant care facility died from COVID-19 due to the facility’s allegedly lackadaisical response. The complaint names Life Care Centers of America Inc., its New Mexico-based subsidiary, and the subsidiary’s executive director (collectively, Life Care Centers) as defendants.

Wednesday’s decision explained the plaintiffs’ argument that “despite notice of the spread of COVID-19, none of the Defendants did anything to institute an appropriate facility plan to prevent the spread, and Defendants instructed staff not to wear masks, ordered all testing swabs destroyed without being tested, failed to sterilize equipment, reused N95 masks and nursing gowns without sterilization, required staff with COVID-19 symptoms to continue to work, and later, used the same HVAC system for quarantined and non-quarantined residents.”

In October 2020, Life Care Centers removed each complaint on the basis of federal question jurisdiction, asserting that the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) sets forth “an exclusive remedy for the substance of the allegations and relief sought, and thus, expressly preempts state law.” The plaintiffs countered that the PREP Act does not completely preempt their state law tort claims.

The court agreed, finding that the PREP Act provisions that create civil enforcement remedies do not cover the plaintiffs’ allegations. Therefore, Judge Herrera reasoned, Congress did not intend to permit removal of the asserted state law claims. After remand, the cases will proceed in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The plaintiffs are represented by Fadduol, Cluff, Hardy & Conaway P.C. and Whitener Law Firm, and Life Care Centers by Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb P.A.