An elderly woman looking upset sitting in her nursing home.

Elder abuse is, sadly, a widespread problem in our society. When you place your senior parent or other loved one into long-term residential care, or even hire in-home care for them, you’re trusting that their caregiver has their best interests at heart. You’re trusting that the person giving such care has the qualifications and experience to ensure your loved one’s needs are met. When situations of abuse arise, you feel betrayed, confused and angry.

The question that arises is to what degree is such abuse a criminal act, and what recourse you have to seek justice for your parent or elder loved one. Learn about the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, under which category elder abuse falls, and when having an elder abuse lawyer is vital.

An elderly man crying to his daughter after suffering elder abuse.

What Is The Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

There are different categories of crime, depending on the severity of the act. Each category carries different levels of punishment and penalty, ranging from simple fines (summary offenses) to jail time or even long-term imprisonment. The two major categories of crime are misdemeanors and felonies, with different “degrees” of crime within each category.

In general, misdemeanors are lesser crimes, though still considered serious. Most carry sentences in a county jail as opposed to a federal prison, as well as fines. Felonies, on the other hand, are the most serious crimes and carry longer sentences in state prison.

Examples of misdemeanors include first-offense domestic assault, minor assault and manufacturing certain controlled substances. Felonies include first- and second-degree murder, manufacture of Schedule I or II controlled substances, and malicious assault.

So is Elder Abuse a Felony?

This is a tricky question because there’s no blanket answer. For any given case of elder abuse, the District Attorney has the discretion to file charges under misdemeanor or felony cases, depending on the individual circumstance.

Generally speaking, to qualify as a felony, the caregiver must have violated a clear legal duty and exhibited conduct that in all likelihood would cause serious bodily harm or even death. Misdemeanor charges can result from less serious circumstances, where the elder’s life or health was endangered, but to a lesser degree.

In the end, the DA will make the decision based on the individual circumstances of the case and the severity of harm or danger suffered by the elder. This is why it’s so important to document the abuse your loved one has experienced.

What Constitutes Criminal Negligence?

Criminal negligence goes beyond ordinary negligence. Not only does it involve a failure to exercise reasonable care or conduct, it is behavior that is classified as so unreasonable or uncaring as to show pure disregard for human life.

In cases of elder abuse, the senior is dependent upon the caregiver for basic needs. When the caregiver withholds food, necessary medical treatment or medications so that the elder’s life is endangered, this is criminal negligence.

An older woman with bruises on her arm being taken care of by her doctor.

What Constitutes a Likelihood of Great Bodily Harm?

The likelihood to cause great bodily harm or direct endangerment of life is the key factor in determining whether a circumstance of elder abuse is a felony. It applies to circumstances that create a likelihood of such harm.

It’s important to understand that actual suffering of harm isn’t required, only the likelihood that great harm can result from negligent acts. This means that someone who, for example, willfully withholds food and water, fails to give essential medication, leaves bedsores to get infected or other such criminally negligent acts, may be guilty of felony abuse.

Elder Abuse Penalties

Misdemeanor elder abuse carries a fine of up to $1,000, completion of a mandatory court-approved educational program, summary probation and, depending on the severity of the abuse, up to a year’s incarceration in county jail. Felony abuse carries a fine of up to $10,000, completion of a court program, formal probation, a strike on the defendant’s record if injury or death occurred and from two to four years in state prison. If a strike results, this adds between three and seven years to the prison sentence.

Stewart Bell, PLLC, Is Here For Your Loved On

Unfortunately, none of the fines in these cases go to the elder who have suffered abuse, and sometimes these cases can result in expensive, long-term medical bills. An experienced elder abuse lawyer can help you to file a civil case to get compensation for the injuries suffered.

For many years, our team at Stewart Bell, PLLC has helped people in similar situations. Whether it’s physical, neglect, emotional, sexual or any other form of abuse, we’re here to help you hold the responsible parties accountable. Get in touch with us today for your free consultation by giving us a call or filling out the online form.


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For more than 30 years, the lawyers of Stewart Bell, PLLC have helped the people and businesses of West Virginia protect their interests and rights. We understand the issues that injured people and their families face after an accident and work quickly to obtain the MAXIMUM amount of compensation for every case we handle.

We have recovered MILLIONS of dollars for clients injured because of nursing home abuse, motor vehicle accidents or medical malpractice.

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