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McClatchy-Tribune  01/25/2014 5:50 AM ET
Appeal pending in Bluffton elder abuse lawsuits [The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) :: ]

Jan. 25--Three lawsuits seeking damages for elder abuse at a Bluffton senior living facility are on hold as the center's parent company appeals to the S.C. Supreme Court.

Three victims of mistreatment at Carolina House sued their former caregiver and Brookdale Senior Living in 2011, but debate over an arbitration clause in their residency agreements has stalled the cases.

Brookdale Senior Living argues that Yvonne Pruett, who has since died, and two other former residents, Janet Scheerle and Elizabeth O'Meara, are bound by a residency agreement they or their caregivers signed when moving into Carolina House.

The "arbitration provision" requires residents to resolve any disputes out of court and limits the damages they can receive for pain and suffering to $250,000.

Despite the agreement, Pruett, Scheerle and O'Meara sued Brookdale Senior Living after they were abused by Carolina House employee Sonia Shereen King of Estill on Dec. 31, 2010. Another employee reported witnessing several inappropriate incidents that date, including King slapping two of the residents and yanking the third patient out of bed by her arms, undressing her and washing her private parts with toothpaste, according to the lawsuits.

King, who was fired the next month, pleaded guilty in June 2011 to three counts of abusing a vulnerable adult. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison and one year probation.

In August 2011, a Circuit Court judge ordered the civil cases to trial, ruling that the residency agreement was "unconscionable" and "unenforceable."

In its appeal, the company says the agreement is valid and governed by federal law because it involves interstate commerce. For example, Brookdale Senior Living purchases food from Texas and medical supplies from Wisconsin, the appeal states.

Both sides argued their cases before the Supreme Court in September. If the presiding justices deny the appeal, the cases would be scheduled for jury trials.

With a decision in that matter pending before the Supreme Court, the company filed a separate argument last month, claiming Samuel Pruett -- whose wife, Yvonne, was one of the three victims and died before her suit was settled -- had backed out of another agreement to settle out of court.

A Circuit Court judge ruled in June that Brookdale Senior Living had no such agreement with Samuel Pruett of Hilton Head Island.

The company argues, in a brief filed Dec. 20, that it signed a digital agreement to settle. Pruett's response was due Monday, but his representative, McNair Law Firm, requested additional time.

Susan Wall of McNair Law Firm declined to comment on the case.

Attempts to reach King -- who has been released from prison -- and representatives of Brookdale Senior Living were unsuccessful.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at


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