Employees of nursing home where 12 died in power outage charged with manslaughter
Four healthcare workers were charged with aggravated manslaughter on Tuesday in connection with the deaths of 12 people at a stifling hot Hollywood nursing home in September 2017 after Hurricane Irma cut power to the facility’s air-conditioning system.
It’s unusual for healthcare workers to face criminal charges when their patients die in the course of receiving care, but Hollywood Police Chief Chris O’Brien said the charges were merited because the four workers “didn’t do enough” to save the residents who died.
“These four individuals neglected their duties and failed to provide adequate care,” O’Brien said at a press conference announcing the charges.
Three of the former employees of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills surrendered to police on Monday, including Jorge Carballo, the facility’s administrator, and Sergo Colin, a night shift nursing supervisor. Both men face 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter.
Online Florida Department of Health records say Carballo gained his nursing home administrator license in July 2015. No discipline actions or complaints have been filed against him.
Colin has been a licensed medical professional without any discipline actions or complaints since receiving his paramedic’s license in 1999. He became a registered nurse in 2009.
Hollywood police also charged Althia Meggie, a registered nurse, and Tamika Miller, a licensed practical nurse, with aggravated manslaughter and tampering with or fabricating medical records.
Meggie has been a licensed medical professional since 2012, a registered nurse since October 2015. Miller’s been a licensed practical nurse since 2015. Both have clean discipline and complaint records, according to the Department of Health.
Among those attending Tuesday’s press conference were family members of residents who died at the nursing home. Photo montages of the residents were placed on easels in front of a stage, and a video monitor displayed mug shots of the four workers charged with aggravated manslaughter.
O’Brien said police met with the families on Monday night to share information before releasing it to the public.
“The families sitting here today should not have lost their loved ones that way,” O’Brien said. “They have been living an absolute nightmare.”
He added that the investigation into the nursing home deaths continues, and that “additional arrests are anticipated.”
At least one of the four employees charged on Tuesday plans a vigorous defense.
Jim Cobb, a Louisiana-based attorney representing Carballo, said his client was “railroaded” with the criminal charges, and he accused Florida regulators of conducting a “cover-up.”
“They have attempted in these charges to blame healthcare workers and caregivers who showed up to work and were at their posts in the middle of a natural disaster emergency and did the very best they could,” Cobb said.
Cobb challenged the premise that the nursing home workers did not try their best to care for the residents. He said nursing home workers chose to shelter in place, as called for in their emergency response plan, which had been filed with Broward County’s emergency management office but included no mention of how residents would be kept cool if the home’s power was lost.
He added that filing criminal charges against the nursing home’s employees could create a chilling effect among healthcare workers who may be called in to hospitals and nursing homes during a natural disaster.
“Does the Hollywood police and state attorney want to send a message that we’re not going to allow this to happen to older people,” he said, “or is the message they’re sending that, ‘Healthcare workers beware. If it doesn’t work out for you and your patients, we’re going to charge you with a crime.’ ”
But U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said the charges send a different message: That the people who died at the nursing home have not been forgotten.
Wyden led an investigation into the nursing home deaths and found failures at the Hollywood Hills facility and in federal regulations designed to protect their vulnerable residents.
“Federal regulations still don’t do enough to protect nursing home residents during natural disasters,” Wyden said in a written statement. “As the height of hurricane season approaches, these arrests are a reminder that nursing homes must be prepared for disasters before they strike and understand that sheltering in place has risks.”
Residents of the nursing home began dying three days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in South Florida on Sept. 10, 2017. They ranged in age from 57 to 99.
About 150 people lived at the nursing home at the time. Administrators did not evacuate the facility even as temperatures rose during the three days the air-conditioning system was out, and despite the fact that Memorial Regional Hospital is located next door.
Cobb said there’s a reason the nursing home’s residents were not evacuated to Memorial Regional, one of the largest hospitals in the state.
“Memorial Regional Hospital was slammed,” he said. “They had actually discharged several of their patients to us, to Hollywood Hills, because they needed the beds. Their emergency room was overwhelmed. It was a post-hurricane disaster, for crying out loud, not a slow day at the local urgent care clinic.”
Memorial spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin said in a written statement that the hospital was able to manage and treat more than 100 patients evacuated from the Hollywood Hills nursing home next door.
“Memorial Healthcare System saved many lives from the nursing home,” Baldwin said. She added that it is the nursing home’s responsibility to let the hospital know if it was unable to accept patients while the air conditioning was out.
In response to the nursing home deaths, former Gov. Rick Scott issued a series of emergency orders — including one that required nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators and enough fuel to keep their operations and cooling systems running for at least 96 hours after a disruption.
But as of June, the start of hurricane season, fewer than half of Florida’s 687 licensed nursing homes have implemented the plan, according to data published by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. AHCA reports that 287 nursing homes have installed generators and an additional 400 have been given more time to follow through on plans.
The Hollywood Hills nursing home had a backup generator that kicked in after Hurricane Irma took out two transformers feeding power to the facility. But the generator powered only the lights, medical equipment and appliances. A separate transformer that powered the central air-conditioning system remained out of commission.
Hollywood Hills administrators said they brought in portable air chillers to cool the building. But the portable chillers may have made matters worse because they weren’t properly ventilated and pushed additional heat into a confined space, according to the testimony of an engineering expert hired by the state to evaluate the disaster.
Inside the building, air temperatures spiked to 99 degrees — about 18 degrees higher than required by federal regulations for nursing homes. Workers scrambled to tend to the elderly residents. Some labored to breathe while others lay motionless and silent in their beds, according to statements from family members.
As the nursing home sweltered, administrators said they repeatedly called Florida Power & Light to restore power to the air-conditioning system, and dialed former Gov. Scott’s personal cellphone. Scott gave out the number to the nursing home’s operators during a conference call as the hurricane approached.
Scott’s office released a statement at the time saying that the nursing home’s administrators never indicated there was an urgent need.
By the third day without power at the nursing home, residents began to give out. The nursing home called an ambulance for one resident felled by an irregular heartbeat, and a second ambulance an hour later for a resident who couldn’t breathe.
A third ambulance was called for a resident who suffered a heart attack and died before rescue arrived. Before paramedics could leave the building, another resident died and then another. Memorial Regional doctors and nurses, alarmed by the flurry of calls, ordered an evacuation of the nursing home.
The nursing home’s license was suspended days after the evacuation. In January, state regulators revoked the license. The nursing home’s owners, South Miami’s Larkin Hospital, are appealing the revocation.
Miami Herald staff writers Julia Ingram and David J. Neal contributed to this report.