Saturday, December 9

Only one now charged in post-Irma Florida nursing home deaths


The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills tragedy

Three days after tropical storm force sustained winds and hurricane strength likes from the edge of 2017’s Hurricane Irma knocked out power at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, residents began dying in stifling heat. The death toll reached 12.

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One person, facility administrator Jorge Carballo, will face criminal charges stemming from 12 nursing home deaths that occurred after winds from the edge of 2017’s Hurricane Irma turned the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills into a powerless hotbox.

As the Broward County State Attorney’s Office announced Thursday morning it was dropping its prosecution of night shift supervisor Sergo Colin, registered nurse Althia Meggie and licensed practical nurse Tamika Miller, it also announced the trio would be listed as prosecution witnesses against Carballo.

Carballo, a resident of Miramar, has been charged with nine counts of aggravated manslaughter against an elderly adult. Jury selection in Carballo’s trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 18 with a Nov. 7 scheduled trial start.

The Associated Press reported Carballo’s lead attorney, James Cobb, said in a letter to Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor “I’ve never seen a more malicious, misguided prosecution in my life;” claimed prosecutor Chris Killoran told Cobb that Carballo will be acquitted; and Pryor’s office has “no good faith reasonable belief that you can obtain a conviction of Mr. Carballo.”

Pryor’s response in a letter released by his office Thursday: “I was particularly disturbed by your allegations. Nonetheless, I must be clear. I am aware of the challenges that lie ahead; however, we do believe we have a good faith basis to proceed against your client.”

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North Maimi Beach resident Colin was facing 12 counts of aggravated manslaughter against an elderly or disabled adult. North Miami’s Miller was being charged with six counts of that crime and three counts of tampering with physical evidence. Meggie of Lauderdale Lakes had been charged with two counts of aggravated manslaughter against an elderly or disabled adult and two counts of tampering with physical evidence.

“The arrest and prosecution of Mr. Colin was false from the very beginning,” his attorney, David Frankel, said via email. “The Hollywood police withheld information and suppressed evidence that showed Mr. Colin and his co-workers never committed any crime, and in fact acted heroically to keep patients safe as long as they could after former Gov. Rick Scott and FPL failed to respond to more than a dozen calls for help over three days after Hurricane Irma passed.

“The Broward State Attorney chose to continue the prosecution knowing there was no evidence, refusing to drop the charges until he was forced to do so.”

Meggie’s attorney, Lawrence Hashish, said in a Thursday night text message to the Herald that there was no agreement linking the charges being dropped against his client to being on the prosecution witness list against Carballo.

Irma winds took power, air conditioning and, eventually, lives

The edge of Hurricane Irma lashed South Florida with tropical storm force winds and hurricane strength gusts on Sept. 10. Power outages were common — the Florida Health Care Association reported 150 of 700 nursing home facilities lost some power — but it was at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills that residents began dying on Sept. 13.

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Without power or enough generator backup, the nursing home had no sufficient answer for the late summer high heat and humidity. The Sept. 12 temperature reached 90 with a peak heat index of 99.

The deaths began the following morning. Eight residents died on Sept. 13 in a nursing home that’s across the parking lot from Memorial Regional Hospital. Eventually, 12 people died, but criminal investigations and finger pointing began even before the death toll stopped rising.

Then-US Senator Bill Nelson declared, “This is an inexcusable tragedy that frail patients would die of heat exhaustion without it being recognized and taking them to the hospital next door,” while then-Gov. Rick Scott called it “unfathomable.”

But, Rehabilitation Center employees say they were ignored after leaving messages on Scott’s cell phone asking for help, using a number he’d given out before Irma hit so administrators could call him directly for help. Scott said his staff destroyed the voice mails after transcribing them. In 2020, Cobb and Frankel would claim in a filing that it was destroying evidence. Scott’s office — he was US Senator Rick Scott by then — said their clients should’ve dialed 911 when the situation grew perilous.

Civil lawsuits were filed against the nursing home, owner Larkin Community Hospital, Carballo and even FPL before autumn was a month old. But it wasn’t until Aug. 27, 2019, almost two years later, that criminal charges were filed against Carballo, Colin, Meggie and Miller, four medical professionals with unblemished licenses.

This story was originally published September 22, 2022 9:26 PM.

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Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. I have drinks whole coladas. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.

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