Nursing Home Staff Charged in Hurricane Irma Deaths
For two years, officials and law enforcement have been investigating the deaths of 12 residents who died in a Florida nursing home after Hurricane Irma. Readers may recall the outrage after resident rights and safety were compromised by nursing home staff who allowed temperatures in the facility to rise dangerously.
In response to the state’s 111-page report about the conditions that led to the heat-related deaths, four nursing home employees have been charged with manslaughter. Prosecutors say more charges are likely.
National Outrage to the Tragic Deaths
After Hurricane Irma tore through south Florida in September, 2017, thousands of people were without power. Temperatures were hot, leaving residents battling the sweltering heat for days after the storm. Americans across the Country expressed outrage when the media began reporting about the temperatures inside The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
The storm and subsequent lack of power left nursing home residents without air conditioning in the facility for days. Nursing home staff did not evacuate the facility, which resulted in tragic and needless deaths. Within three days, eight residents died from heat-related injuries.
In the following weeks, another four residents passed away from complications related to the heat. That accounts for 12.5 percent of residents in the facility losing their lives because the caregivers were not able to properly care for them following a major hurricane.
Nursing Home Preparation Fails in Execution
Following the deaths and subsequent outrage, the Hollywood Police Department and prosecutors began an investigation into the situation. The investigation presents the image that the facility initially took all the proper steps to be able to care for their residents after a hurricane. The investigation shows nursing home workers:
- Bought extra food and water
- Bought seven days worth of fuel for the back-up generator
- Rented portable air conditioners
- Stayed informed by participating in statewide conference calls with regulators
Despite these preparations, things went very wrong. The facility’s central air conditioner had no connection to the backup generator. Shortly after Irma’s arrival, the transformer that powered the central air system stopped working. The backup generator provided electricity to the facility but could not control temperatures.
The temporary air conditioners on hand for precisely this occasion vented into the ceiling of the two-story building, radiating heat into the second floor. The second floor was still housing residents, and 11 of the 12 victims who died lived on the second floor.
Administrators’ attempts to contact the power company and even the governor’s personal cell phone number did not result in any practical help for the residents suffering withering heat. A lawyer for one of the defendants said that the workers in the facility did everything possible for three days to keep the facility stable.
One thing the workers did not do? No one called 911.
Uncontrolled Heat Leads to Resident Deaths
Hollywood paramedics made several visits to the facility in the days following the hurricane. The first resident removed from the facility was a 96-year-old man. Paramedics measured his temperature at 106°F. He died five days later.
The night shift nurse supervisor says the temperature inside the facility was safe when he left that day at 11 p.m. The state’s report did not find this claim to be credible. Residents started dying in the facility the next day.
By 3 a.m., a mere four hours after the temperature was supposedly safe, paramedics were back at the facility to treat an elderly woman suffering from cardiac arrest. Her temperature was 107°F. Another patient also had a body temperature of 107°F. One of the paramedics who responded told investigators that the temperature inside the facility was, “ungodly hot.”
Other paramedics testifying for the state’s report say that some patients in the facility were not closely monitored despite the emergency situation. Paramedics say that one resident was in rigor mortis. He had been dead for hours before anyone noticed. Other paramedics said that the night shift nursing supervisor attempted to keep them from checking on other residents.
Outside Agencies Accomplish an Evacuation
Staff at the nearby hospital were alarmed at the state of patients arriving in the emergency room from the facility. The hospital is across the street, and hospital staff members walked over to check on residents. One nurse said the facility felt as hot as a car that has been sitting in the sun all day.
Eventually, the fire department took charge and made the order for the facility to evacuate residents. Within days, state regulators suspended the nursing home’s license, before revoking it altogether.
The nursing home administrator’s attorney says that his client and the other nursing home staff are scapegoats. He says they did everything they could in an emergency situation to care for the residents, despite large swaths of Florida going without electricity for weeks following hurricane Irma.
In response to claims that nursing home staff could have evacuated the residents across the street to the hospital that was fully operational, the attorney says the hospital was so overwhelmed it was referring patients to Hollywood Hills.
Regardless, the investigation shows enough evidence for prosecutors to press charges.
Nursing Home Negligence Leads to Arrests
The investigation, which is detailed in the state report, found that the administrator and staff at the facility “neglected their duties.” The staff failed to evacuate residents despite sweltering heat inside the facility.
The arrests and charges filed include the facility’s administrator and the night shift nursing supervisor. Both are facing 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter. Two nurses are also facing charges in connection with the deaths. One faces six counts of aggravated manslaughter, and the other two counts of aggravated manslaughter. There are also charges of evidence tampering. Only one of the accused is free on bail, while the other three remain in custody.
Hollywood Police Chief Chris O’Brien said,
“The families sitting here today should not have lost their loved ones this way. They placed their faith and trust in the facility … and that trust was betrayed. They have been living an absolute nightmare.”
O’Brien said he expects to make further arrests. The medical examiner ruled the deaths of the nursing home patients as homicides. The law enforcement investigation involved interviewing more than 500 people and seizing 55 computers. Having left no stone unturned, the police seem to be confident of a conviction in this matter.
Nursing Homes are Required to Keep Residents Safe and Healthy
As challenging as emergency situations are for adults in good health, they can be life-threatening to the frail, ill, and elderly residents in nursing homes. Nursing homes have a responsibility not only to prepare for emergencies, but also to keep residents safe when disaster strikes.
Investigators have made a case that four nursing home staff members are criminally liable for the deaths of the 12 victims. Furthermore, the staff and/or the facility itself may very well face liability in the civil justice system. It is likely that the families of those killed in this tragedy will seek justice for their loved ones by filing wrongful death claims.
If someone you love is battling an injury due to a facility or caregiver that had a duty to keep them safe, contact Nursing Home Abuse Center. Your loved one has rights, and we can help you protect them. Schedule a free consultation with a nursing home abuse lawyer by calling 1-800-516-4783. Or, you can fill out our online form to request more information.