Florida Nursing Home Faces Criminal Investigation After Hurricane Irma Deaths
A Florida nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma is being criminally investigated after eight of its residents died due to heat-related causes.
Last Sunday, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills believed it had all the resources it needed to weather the storm, including a back-up power generator and enough food and water for seven days. By Thursday, however, eight residents were dead, the remaining 115 people were evacuated, and the nursing home was the subject of federal, state, and local criminal investigations.
Conditions at the nursing home deteriorated when a tree fell on a transformer, knocking out the air conditioning. Though residents were clearly suffering from the sweltering heat, none were taken to the hospital across the street until one resident had a heart attack, at which point the nursing home finally called 911. When first responders arrived, they found many residents in critical condition and three dead bodies on the second floor. The total death count would eventually reach eight, while other residents are still recovering in the hospital.
How did this happen, and what kind of charges or lawsuits could Hollywood Hills be facing? Broward County, where the nursing home is located, issued a statement explaining that Hollywood Hills contacted the county’s Emergency Operations Center to report the power outage. However, according to the mayor of Broward County, “Hollywood Hills, when asked if they had any medical needs or emergencies, did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed.”
Worse, records show that Hollywood Hills had been cited by state agencies multiple times in recent years for failure to comply with nursing home safety regulations, including a failure to maintain working back-up generators. The nursing home has had to defend itself in the past against negligence lawsuits brought by residents under state laws requiring nursing homes to maintain a standard of care for their residents.
Known for its large elderly population, Florida has several laws regulating nursing home practices, including criminal statutes and regulations. In addition to laws setting qualifications for nursing home staff, Florida law guarantees nursing home residents the right to regular meals, access to emergency health care, and protection from abuse and neglect. Nursing homes in Florida are also required to maintain sanitary and safety conditions, including air conditioning and heat.
Under Florida Statute § 400.023, a resident who has had these rights violated by a nursing home may bring an action against the nursing home for damages, including punitive damages. Residents can also sue a nursing home if the nursing home has been negligent in maintaining a safe and sanitary environment. In the tragic case were a resident dies from a nursing home’s negligence or from abuse, the resident’s guardian can bring suit on their loved one’s behalf. Though these actions are available to victims of nursing home negligence and abuse, it is important to consult an attorney familiar with the procedures for filing such lawsuits, as there are requirements that must be met before one can recover for their injuries or the injuries of their loved ones.
In addition to these civil remedies, Florida Statute § 825.102 specifically protects elderly and disabled adults, who make up most residents of nursing homes, by criminalizing abuse and neglect. While charges of abuse generally require intentional harm, nursing homes like Hollywood Hills may still face criminal liability for neglecting its residents. Pursuant to Florida law, it is a felony for a caregiver to fail to provide a nursing home resident with care, supervision, or services necessary to maintaining that resident’s well-being. As stated in Florida Statute § 825.102, this includes failing to provide residents with food, clothing, shelter, or medical services that are essential for their health.
Florida law also makes it mandatory for nursing home staff to report neglect and abuse to a “central abuse hotline.” In the event a resident dies from neglect or abuse, a nursing home employee is required by law to report the death to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
Even though Hurricane Irma was responsible for the power outage, Hollywood Hills was and remains responsible for its residents’ safety. As we would expect when entrusting the care of our loved ones to a nursing home, state laws, including Florida’s, impose legal duties on nursing homes to keep their residents safe and healthy.
When nursing homes cut corners or prioritize profit over people, the results can be devastating. Though we are still waiting on more facts to come out, it is undisputed that Hollywood Hills had a duty to diligently monitor its residents’ health and to act if its residents were in danger. If Hollywood Hills failed to do that, it will soon find itself in court facing civil lawsuits and potentially criminal charges.
Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School.