HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (CN) – Four South Florida nursing home workers are facing aggravated manslaughter charges for the deaths of a dozen residents who perished under their care amid sweltering heat during a power outage caused by Hurricane Irma.
In a press conference Tuesday, police detailed the felony charges against the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills staff members, who allegedly failed to take action to save patients suffering from heat stroke after the intense 2017 hurricane.
Chief Chris O’Brien of the Hollywood Police Department said family members of the dead, who met with him Monday, were grateful that the nearly two-year investigation bore fruit.
“It’s a neverending story here,” O’Brien said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through. You instill your trust in this facility to care for your loved one, and they betrayed that trust.”
Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the nursing home’s air conditioning system on Sept. 10, 2017. The nursing home employees allegedly delayed evacuation for two days despite the unbearably hot conditions inside.
One fire department lieutenant said the place was “like a sauna” when he arrived on September 13 to treat dying patients.
Some residents were found undressed, sitting in front of fans. Another was found sweating profusely, soiled with feces, lying in a fetal position on a sheetless bed.
According to court documents, cries for water and ice were not addressed by the nursing home workers.
The Hollywood Police Department declined a request to release probable cause affidavits that describe each defendant’s alleged role in the tragedy.
Facility administrator Jorge Carballo and nursing supervisor Sergo Colin each face 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter.
Nurse Tamika Tory Miller is facing aggravated manslaughter charges in six deaths, and another nurse, Althia Meggie, is charged in the deaths of two patients. Miller and Meggie are also accused of tampering with medical records.
The defendants’ attorneys responded to the charges by maintaining that their clients worked tirelessly to protect the patients as conditions deteriorated.
Carballo’s defense attorney James Cobb Jr. told the Sun Sentinel: “I understand the emotion. But emotion shouldn’t dictate whether or not criminal charges are brought.”
Colin’s defense attorney on Monday described his client as a scapegoat for the catastrophe – “low-hanging fruit,” as he put it.
The chief of police said his department expects more arrests in the case. He responded to criticism that those charged were low-level employees and that the facility owner was not arrested.
“Our investigation is gonna take us where it takes us,” O’Brien told reporters. “I can tell you that someone’s status in the organization had zero impact on our decision to charge these individuals.”
Florida’s health care administration investigation found that nursing home staff members made efforts to address the heat issue, repeatedly pleading with the governor’s office and the electrical company to fix the line that powered the nursing home’s air conditioning system. The staff also bought industrial fans, placed portable coolers around the facility and called a private contractor to try to restore power.
But the investigators ultimately concluded that the nursing home failed to check on patients in the critical hours leading up to the evacuation.
Efforts to use the portable coolers purportedly backfired, as the exhausts were not vented outside. This caused the temperature to increase in parts of the building, according to one engineer’s testimony.
Florida revoked the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills’ license in January 2019 and ordered it to pay administrative fines and legal costs. The center’s license had previously been suspended in the aftermath of the tragedy.
A judge’s 2018 order in the administrative case – one of the most comprehensive accounts of the catastrophe – found that patients were indeed left to fend for themselves. First responders discovered one body in rigor mortis, which “strongly suggests that the staff was not rounding on patients regularly and providing water and ice,” the judge wrote.
“The video footage does not reflect that … Colin, the night shift supervisor, made routine monitoring rounds with any of the attending nursing assistants or nursing staff on September 12 or 13,” the judge wrote.
O’Brien said the 400 hours his department spent reviewing the nursing home’s video records played a critical role in the decision to bring criminal charges.
“The video evidence clearly illustrates that the [defendants’] action or inaction … did not meet the scope of what was going on,” he told reporters Tuesday.
The victims named in the case are Carolyn Eatherly, Gail Nova, Estella Hendricks, Bobby Owens, Miguel Franco, Cecilia Franco, Manuel Mendieta, Albertina Vega, Betty Hibbard, Carlos Canal, Martha Murray and Dolores Biamante.
Their ages ranged from 57 to 99.
Several wrongful death lawsuits are pending against the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. Some of the estates of the victims, including those of Hibbard, Canal and Hendricks, have settled their claims against the center.
Florida Power and Light has denied liability amid accusations that it needlessly put off repairs to the local electrical line after Hurricane Irma struck.
“The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was responsible [for the] safety of its patients – including when power was interrupted, and it is [the center’s] inexplicable failure to seek prompt medical attention … that resulted in multiple injuries and deaths,” the company said in a civil pleading.