© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Least 8 Lawsuits Are Now Pending Against Kansas City, Kansas, Rehab Facility Over COVID-19 Deaths

Julie Denesha
Riverbend Post-Acute Rehabilitation is indirectly owned by The Ensign Group, a California-based operator of long-term care facilities in 13 states.

The 36 deaths at Riverbend account for half the COVID-19-related deaths in Wyandotte County.

At least eight lawsuits have now been filed against Riverbend Post-Acute Rehabilitation, the Kansas City, Kansas, nursing home where 132 patients and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and 36 have died.

Attorneys representing the nursing home on Tuesday transferred all eight cases to federal court in Kansas City, Kansas. They had originally been filed in Wyandotte County District Court.

Defendants are allowed to move civil actions from state to federal court if there’s a basis for federal jurisdiction. In all eight cases, Riverbend’s attorneys invoked the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, a law that authorizes the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to issue a declaration in response to a public health emergency.

Such a declaration provides immunity from liability to health care providers who prescribe and administer medications and other measures amid public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachel Stahle, an attorney who represents families in four of the eight cases, said she will seek to have the cases sent back to state court.

“This happened in Wyandotte County and should be heard in Wyandotte County by Wyandotte County jurors,” she said.

Riverbend’s attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.

The eight wrongful-death lawsuits were filed on behalf of patients who died at Riverbend. In general, they allege that the nursing home was negligent in how it handled the spread of the coronavirus, that it lacked adequate staff and that it failed to notify the families of the outbreak.

The first lawsuit was filed on April 28 by the wife and daughter of Okey Long, an 87-year-old retired barber who died on April 17. The other lawsuits were filed in the following days by family members of other residents who were said to have died of COVID-19.

The 36 deaths at Riverbend account for half the COVID-19-related deaths in Wyandotte County.

On April 26, Riverbend posted a statement on its website offering its condolences to the families and friends of residents who died of COVID-19.

“Given the novel nature of the virus and the ability of asymptomatic individuals to unknowingly infect others, we believe our team took reasonable actions with the resources and information available to us at the time,” the statement reads.

“Now, to second guess those on the front lines battling a mysterious virus who were doing what they could to save lives, just doesn’t feel like a path to justice,” the statement says. "If that is the route we choose to take, then skilled nursing facilities all across the country will be facing a new crisis that threatens the industry’s ability to minister to those in need of the care and services it provides.”

As of May 21, at least 7,732 long-term care facilities in 43 states were reporting 174,381 infections and 35,118 deaths, or 42% of all U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Riverbend is indirectly owned by The Ensign Group, a publicly traded company based in Mission Viejo, California. The company owns about 225 assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitative care facilities in 13 states. It acquired the Kansas City, Kansas, facility in 2016.

In 2019, The Ensign Group earned more than $110 million on revenues of more than $2 billion. In its most recent quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it expected to receive nearly $40 million in federal funds under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress to help prop up health care providers and other businesses amid the pandemic.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.