Litigation is underway against the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, the nursing home where eight residents died in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Miami firm Leighton Law filed a complaint Friday in Broward Circuit Court on behalf of the family of 99-year-old Albertina Vega, who died after the facility lost air-conditioning Tuesday. It was not until Wednesday that emergency responders were alerted to the need to evacuate more than 150 residents from the nursing home, which is across the street from a hospital.
“The facility took meager measures by situating only a few portable air ‘coolers’ throughout the entire 81,000 square foot facility,” the lawsuit alleges.
Attorneys John Leighton and Max Panoff are asking the court to enter an emergency order for the protection of any relevant records.
A criminal investigation is underway, and Gov. Rick Scott barred the home from accepting new Medicaid patients.
“At no time did the facility report that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk,” Scott’s office said in a statement Friday. “In fact, on Monday, September 11, Department of Health staff advised this facility to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that their patients were not safe.”
The governor also issued a 90-day executive order Saturday requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to obtain generators within 60 days to guarantee “operations and maintain comfortable temperatures for at least 96 hours following a power outage.” Scott also said he would press for a bill mandating livable temperatures at facilities that care for seniors.
The nursing home’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement that the facility was “cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome.”
The nursing home’s owner, Dr. Jack Michel, once settled federal health care fraud charges, and attorneys who have investigated claims against the nursing home noted a history of police investigations and safety citations.
Boca Raton attorney Michael Brevda of the Senior Justice Law Firm said he is also working on a lawsuit on behalf of another resident’s family.
“This is a particularly horrific story, but it only captures media attention because it is tied to Hurricane Irma,” Brevda said. “Tragically, I see incidents of nursing home abuse and neglect resulting in wrongful death almost daily. We need to shed more light on this growing epidemic in our country.”
Any criminal charges will largely hinge on whether there was culpable negligence by the nursing home or its staff, meaning conduct evincing a disregard for human life while engaging in wanton or reckless behavior, according to Ira Leesfield and Adam Rose of the Miami firm Leesfield Scolaro, which represents plaintiffs in elder-abuse claims.
But to establish civil liability, plaintiffs only have to show negligence under Florida law. The nursing home’s possible defenses include arguing unrelated health conditions caused the nursing home residents’ deaths or that the hurricane was an “act of God.”
But, Rose wrote in an email, the “act of God” defense would “almost certainly fail given that the residents died days after the storm and the fact that the storm and potential air conditioning issues were foreseeable.
“Given the facts known to date — particularly that the nursing home never requested assistance or evacuation and was located a stone’s throw from a hospital — any potential defenses appear futile,” he wrote.