Death from a hurricane in a nursing home: accident or manslaughter?

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — A Florida nursing home administrator accused of causing the overheating deaths of nine patients after Hurricane Irma in 2017 went on trial Monday, with a prosecutor calling him a ‘captain who abandoned ship’ while his attorney said he was a “scapegoat” for the company’s power outages to restore power.

Prosecutor Chris Killoran told the six-member jury that Jorge Carballo was guilty of manslaughter because he failed to give adequate instructions to his staff at the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center after the loss of power the facility’s air conditioning system. He said Carballo returned home even though it was ‘ridiculously hot’ inside the 150-bed, two-story facility and did not order his patients to be evacuated to a fully functioning hospital. located just across the street.

Prosecutors must prove that Carballo acted recklessly and showed blatant and negligent disregard for the safety of his patients. Carballo, 65, could face 15 years in prison if convicted, although a sentence of that length is unlikely as he has no prior record. He was initially charged with 12 deaths, but three cases were dropped. Charges were also dropped against three of his employees, who will testify against him.

“This is a case of a captain who abandoned his slowly sinking ship and left not only his crew but also the passengers to fend for themselves,” Killoran said. As temperatures rose inside the centre, Carballo “did next to nothing”, he said.

“He had his staff buy fans to circulate hot air and had portable air conditioners installed,” he said, but it wasn’t done properly, which aggravated the temperatures on the second floor where the deaths occurred.

But defense attorney James Cobb said Carballo did everything in his power to protect his patients. He instructed his staff to inform Florida Power & Light that the air conditioning power was cut off immediately after it happened and several times over the next two days, Cobb said, but the company did not send a crew until an executive has seen reports of patients dying. He said the issue took 10 minutes to fix.

He said Carballo was following published research that shows elderly and frail patients on the move are at high risk of death.

“This case can be boiled down to one word – scapegoat,” Cobb said. The lawyer previously won the acquittal of two New Orleans nursing home owners who were charged after 35 patients drowned in floods in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

Cobb, mocking Killoran’s characterization of Carballo abandoning ship, showed the jury two photos of Carballo working with his staff during the emergency. He said Carballo is on trial to avoid putting the blame where it belongs – on the power company.

“Hurricanes are unpredictable. Things happen during hurricanes that cannot be planned for. If something happens that can’t be planned, you do your best,” he said.

The victims, aged 57 to 99, had a body temperature of up to 108 degrees (42 degrees Celsius), paramedics reported.

The deaths began three days after Irma knocked out a transformer that powered the cooling system. Otherwise, the installation has never lost power.

A state report said that before the storm hit on September 10, 2017, Carballo and his team made proper preparations. They bought extra food and water and seven days’ worth of fuel for the generator.

Administrators also participated in statewide conference calls with regulators, including one where the governor at the time. Rick Scott said nursing homes should call his cell phone for help.

After the air conditioner was taken out of service, Carballo and his installation manager contacted the power company. When that didn’t work, they tried calling Scott’s cell phone and county and city officials. No help came.

Temperatures that week were in the upper 80s (about 31 degrees Celsius). On September 12, two days after the storm, serious problems began to arise.

In the early afternoon, Hollywood paramedics made the first of several visits over the next 16 hours: a 93-year-old man had breathing problems. A paramedic asked about the high temperatures – staff said they were having the air conditioner fixed. Paramedics took the man to hospital across the street, where doctors measured his temperature at 106 degrees (41.1 degrees Celsius). He died five days later.

Carballo told investigators that when he left at 11 p.m. the temperature inside the house was safe. The report concluded that “not credible”.

At 3 a.m. on September 13, paramedics returned to treat an elderly woman in cardiac arrest, with one telling investigators that the temperature in the house was “unbelievably hot”. The woman’s temperature was 107 (41.7 Celsius) and another person’s too. Paramedics were called to a room where the head nurse was performing CPR on a dead man with rigor mortis.

At 6 a.m., Fire Captain Andrew Holtfreter arrived and was summoned to another corpse. A paramedic began treating a patient whose temperature was so high it could not be measured – thermometers in the ward topped out at 108 degrees (42.2 Celsius).

Alarmed by the arrival of patients in the emergency room, hospital staff went to the center to offer help. A nurse said the house felt like “a hot flash” inside a car that had been in the sun all day.

Firefighters ordered the evacuation of the house.

The trial is expected to last about three weeks.


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