The Miami Herald filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Hollywood for refusing to release documents in connection with the recent deaths of 11 residents at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
The Herald, citing the state’s open records laws, contends that the city is bound by law to release the audio of all 911 calls made from the center on Sept. 13, including the calls at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. that resulted in the fire-rescue response.
The lawsuit also seeks the release of police reports from Sept. 13 and 14 that would provide insight into what police found and were told upon their arrival at the nursing home.
The city says the reports are exempt from the public records law because they are connected to an active criminal investigation.
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The city of Hollywood has a duty to permit the inspection, examination and copy of the reports and calls since they were done by a tax-supported agency in the course of government business, according to the suit filed in Broward County.
Eight rehab center residents died on Sept. 13 after the facility lost its air conditioning and failed to call for help or transport residents who were in distress to the hospital, which was steps away from the home at 1200 N. 35th Ave.
Three more residents died in subsequent days.
The Hollywood Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement are conducting criminal investigations, while the state Agency for Health Care Administration and Medicaid have suspended the nursing home’s operating license and government reimbursements, respectively.
Law enforcement agencies routinely use “an active criminal investigation’’ as a rationale to withhold certain records. The law defines an active investigation as one where there is a “reasonable, good-faith anticipation of securing an arrest or prosecution in the foreseeable future.’’
“Tragically, 11 people died after the worst of Hurricane Irma had passed. We need to understand why this happened, and these records could be an important tool to understanding how to prevent something like this from happening again,” said Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez.
The nursing home, which is next to Memorial Regional Hospital, lost electrical power for its air-conditioning system on the afternoon of Sept. 10, after Irma struck South Florida. Lacking a backup generator to power the unit, the 152-bed center’s administrators said they repeatedly contacted Florida Power & Light and state regulators to repair the power company’s transformer — to no avail.
But the administrators at the facility, which is owned by Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami, acknowledged they did not call 911 emergency services until the wee hours of Sept. 13, when a series of residents began suffering from cardiac arrest and respiratory failure — three days after they had first been subjected to excessively high temperatures.
Witnesses — many of them relatives of the center’s residents — said that they, too, had reached out to various city, county and state agencies in an effort to get help.