Nursing home employees surrender in patient deaths

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – Three employees of a Florida nursing home where 12 people died in sweltering heat after a hurricane cut power turned themselves in on Monday to face charges, their attorneys said. It was unclear if a fourth person expected to be charged had surrendered.

Attorneys Jim Cobb and Lawrence Hashish told The Associated Press they were uncertain what charge their clients faced but expected it to be manslaughter.

Hollywood Police, who are responsible for issuing the arrest warrants, did not respond to multiple emails and voice messages.

Patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, ranging in age from 57 to 99, began dying three days after Hurricane Irma swept through in September 2017.

The center, which housed about 150 patients at the time, did not evacuate any of the residents as the temperature began rising, even though a fully functional hospital was across the street, investigators said. The home’s license was suspended days after the storm and it was later closed.

Two nurses whose names were not released and former nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo turned themselves in at the jail on Monday. They waited in the lobby for at least two hours before deputies admitted them into the jail because Hollywood Police had not yet filed the arrest warrants, the attorneys said.

The attorneys also weren’t sure if a third nurse who was to be charged, whom neither of them represent, had turned herself in.

Cobb said none of the employees understood why they were being charged . He said Caballo and other administrators were repeatedly told before the storm that they could call Gov. Rick Scott’s personal cellphone directly for help. Cobb said they called five times, but never heard back from Scott.

Cobb said the administrators “sat there languishing waiting for the cavalry to come. … They never, ever came.”

Hashish remarked that “the real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless caregivers and the evidence will show that no crime was committed.”

Now-U.S. Senator Scott said in a statement that the nursing home should have called 911.

“Nothing can hide the fact that this healthcare facility failed to do their basic duty to protect life,” he said.

But attorney David Frankel, who represents one of the three nurses to be charged, insisted that the staff did everything they could to keep the patients, some of them in hospice, cool and hydrated. They brought in small air conditioners and fans, he said.

“It is undisputed that they were going to any lengths they could,” Frankel said.

He also criticized the notion from investigators and some family members of the deceased that staff should have taken the patients across the street to Memorial Regional Hospital, which had air conditioning. He said the hospital had been sending patients to the nursing home.

“These were very fragile people,” he said. “Evacuating them could have caused more damage.”

Memorial spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin said she couldn’t immediately confirm or deny that the hospital sent patients to the nursing home but said “that would be unusual.” She said if the nursing home was asked to take patients and its air conditioning was out, it should have declined.

Memorial’s doctors and staff began evacuating the nursing home after several dead and seriously ill patients arrived in the emergency room.

Frankel also criticized Florida Power & Light, which he said was supposed to arrive within six hours after the first patient became acutely ill.

FPL issued a statement Monday noting that some parts of the home did have power restored after the storm, but Frankel said the blown transformer that had caused the air conditioning to fail was never fixed.

In its statement, Florida Power & Light added that “those customers who have electricity dependent medical needs should call 911 if they are without power and in a life-threatening situation.”

Craig Wohlitka and other paramedics from Hollywood Fire-Rescue testified last year that they were haunted by the deaths of patients there. Fire Lt. Amy Parrinello said one of the female patients had a temperature of 107.5 degrees (42 Celsius), the highest she had ever seen in her 12-year career. Later that morning, she said, another patient topped that with a temperature so high it couldn’t be measured.

The deaths at the nursing home recalled a similar tragedy in New Orleans in 2005: Moments after Hurricane Katrina ruptured levees, floodwaters filled St. Rita’s nursing home, rising to the ceiling of the one-story facility in a matter of minutes and killing 35 patients.

The home’s owners, Salvatore and Mabel Mangano, were acquitted of negligent homicide and cruelty charges by a jury that deliberated for less than two hours. Cobb was their attorney.

“The notion of charging caregivers, nurses, administrators … for care that they rendered during a natural disaster emergency … is beyond the pale,” he said.

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This story has been edited to clarify that the employees have not yet been charged.

FILE – A Sept. 13, 2017 file photo shows a police staging area at the south entrance of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where residents died, in Hollywood, Fla. Defense attorneys said Sunday, August 25, 2019 that arrests are expected shortly in the case of the Florida nursing home where 12 elderly patients died after the complex lost power and was engulfed by sweltering heat during the powerful 2017 Hurricane Irma.(Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via AP, File)
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