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Children sue over elderly mother’s traumatic death. A COVID immunity law may block their lawsuit.

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 6:52 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The final hours of Julia Margaret Quirindongo’s life were a nightmare.

Her adult children, Ronnie Talent and Lisa Noguera, were by her side when she started having trouble breathing.

What started as labored breathing turned into hours of their mother grasping for air, with a liquid coming out of her mouth and sounds that she was choking.

Quirindongo was at the Brighton Gardens of Charlotte nursing home, also known as Sunrise Senior Living, for hospice care.

A doctor had prescribed medicine to help Quirindongo breathe and to reduce her anxiety.

It turned out, her children would learn later, their mother hadn’t been getting the medication as prescribed.

“It was like she was drowning,” Talent recalled in an interview with WBTV. “And we watched our mother drown for hours.”

Attorneys at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin filed a lawsuit on behalf of Talent and Noguera against the nursing home and its corporate owner, alleging staff failed to properly care for their mother in her final days.

An inspection by the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services on behalf of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services found Quirindongo was one of at least three residents that weren’t receiving medication as prescribed at the facility out of seven reviewed by an inspector.

The facility was cited with a type A1 violation, the highest level, and found their failure to properly administer medication “resulted in serious neglect,” the inspection report found.

But the lawsuit brought on behalf of Quirindongo may not survive in court.

A provision included in a COVID-19 relief bill passed in 2020 by the N.C. General Assembly granted nursing homes and similar facilities immunity from liability related to the virus.

The provision, buried in a 70-page bill, provides “immunity from any civil liability for harm or damages alleged to have been sustained as a result of an act or omission in the course of arranging for or providing health care services” during the COVID-19 emergency.

Lawyers representing the nursing home raised the immunity law as a defense to the lawsuit in its answer to the complaint.

“The decedent’s death occurred on September 5, 2020, during the pendency of the COVID-19 Emergency, which death Plaintiffs allege was a result of the purported negligent health care services provided by Defendants,” the nursing home’s lawyers wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“The ‘Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act’ (‘EDTPA’), contained in N.c. Gen. Stat. 90-21.130 to 90-21.134, provides all Defendants with immunity from civil liability for all claims as alleged in this lawsuit against all defendants.”

A judge in Durham presiding over a similar case has previously ruled the immunity provision does, in fact, apply to non-COVID claims.

Lawyers for the nursing home acknowledged a request for comment for this story but did not follow-up to provide a statement on behalf of the facility.

WBTV could not identify a lawmaker in either the state house or senate that was responsible for inserting the nursing home immunity language into the COVID-19 relief bill.

A spokesman for Senate Republican leader Phil Berger declined to comment.

“It’s beyond frustrating. They should not be able to hide behind COVID,” Talent said.

“They should not be able to hide behind a law they are clearly trying to misuse. This was not the intent.”

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