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Former Head Nurse to Stand Trial for Felony Elder Abuse

An article in The Modesto Bee reported yesterday that Donna Darlene Palmer, former head nurse at a Placerville nursing home, will stand trial for felony elder abuse. Palmer and Rebecca Smith are the two nurses criminally charged by the California Attorney General for their involvement in the death of a 77-year-old Cameron Park woman. Palmer was the director of nursing at the time of the incident and Smith was one of her subordinates.

If you follow our Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect Blog, the name Johnnie Esco may sound familiar. Four and a half years ago, Johnnie Esco died at the age of 77 as a result of what her family and El Dorado County prosecutors believe was a case of elder abuse. Don Esco, Johnnie’s now deceased husband was a central figure in our previous blog. Mr. Esco pressed for criminal charges ever since his wife died in 2008.

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris recently announced plans to use three specialized teams comprised of healthcare professionals and investigators to increase its efforts to investigate and prosecute instances of criminal elder abuse in care facilities. Mr. Esco’s persistence over the last four years certainly played a role in bringing about more criminal investigations against nursing homes and their employees.

Rebecca Smith agreed to help prosecutors with their case against Palmer. She agreed to plead no contest to felony elder abuse in exchange for a possible suspended sentence. Despite Smith’s cooperation, the criminal case against Palmer is still complex both legally and factually.

Donna Eileen Pielin, another nurse at the facility, testified Tuesday for the prosecution. However, Pielin admitted that she has repeatedly changed her stories about the events leading up to Mrs. Esco’s death. Pielin testified at one point that Palmer ordered her, on two consecutive nights, not to send Mrs. Esco to the hospital despite the woman’s deteriorating condition according to the news report. Pielin tried to explain the inconsistencies in her story by explained that she was scared by Palmer and feared she might lose her job. Pielin is a key witness for the prosecution so inconsistencies in her stories could mean future issues with the prosecution’s case.

Palmer’s attorney tried to emphasize that Mrs. Esco suffered from a pre-existing condition which ultimately lead to her death. He was “disappointed by the judge’s decision” especially after showing that the key witness, Pielin, withheld information from investigators and changed her stories several times. The defense attorney attempted to shift the blame to Marshall Medical Center since she suffered a fecal impaction at that hospital before being admitted to the care center.

In addition to the testimony from Pielin, the prosecution also used testimony from Dr. Kathryn Locatell, a geriatric medicine specialist, who testified that Mrs. Esco’s medical records were “suspicious” with missing information, overwritten entries and unexplained notations. She concluded that Mrs. Esco received “substandard care” based on the records.

Cases involving nursing home abuse and neglect are typically handled in civil courts, which is why this case continues to garner widespread attention. Many groups, including legal analysts, elder care advocates, nursing home industry advocates, and government agencies, are watching to see what happens since cases like these could help shape the future of civil and criminal cases of elder abuse and neglect.

All that being said, Judge Daniel B. Proud found there was sufficient evidence to move forward with the criminal case. The Attorney General’s office put the special investigation teams to work, so similar cases are sure to follow.

See Our Related Blog Posts:
Administrators Must Now be Wary of Criminal Charges for Acts Under Their Watch
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