Prosecutors drop several charges for deaths in Florida nursing homes

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Prosecutors on Thursday dropped the manslaughter charges against three nurses who were present when 12 nursing home patients suffered fatal overheating five years ago after Hurricane Irma cut power to their facility’s air conditioning.

The Broward County State Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Althia Meggie, Sergo Colin and Tamika Miller, but not against Jorge Carballo, the caretaker of the house. He is still scheduled to appear in court next month, and prosecutors said Meggie, Colin and Miller would testify against him.

The victims, ranging in age from 57 to 99, had body temperatures of up to 108 degrees (42 degrees Celsius), paramedics have reported. The staff has been criticized for failing to take patients to a hospital across the street that had air conditioning.

Carballo’s attorney, James Cobb, did not immediately call back on Thursday seeking comment. He sent a letter to Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor last week saying, “I’ve never seen a more vicious, misguided prosecution in my life.”

He told Pryor that Chief Prosecutor Chris Killoran has admitted to him that Carballo will be acquitted. He said Pryor and Killoran “have no reasonable belief that you can get a conviction from Mr. Carballo.”

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Pryor replied in a letter dated Thursday: “I am aware of the challenges ahead; however, we believe that we have a good faith basis to act against your client.”

The deaths began at the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center three days after Irma turned off a transformer that powered the cooling system at the 150-bed, two-story facility in suburban Fort Lauderdale. Otherwise, the facility never lost power.

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

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

After the air conditioner was turned off, Carballo and his facility manager contacted Florida Power & Light. When that didn’t work, they tried calling Scott’s cell 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.

Staff tried to use portable air conditioners to keep patients cool, but they were not properly installed. The units on the first floor were vented into the ceiling, meaning they moved heat to the second floor. 11 of the 12 victims lived there.

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In an Internet chat room, managers used to communicate, the director of housekeeping wrote, “the patients don’t look well.” According to the report, Carballo never responded, but did order the installation of large fans.

Early in the 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 – the staff said they were fixing the air conditioner. Ambulance staff took the man to the hospital across the street, where doctors measured his temperature at 106 degrees (41.1 Celsius). He died five days later.

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

At 3 a.m. on Sept. 13, paramedics returned to treat an elderly woman in cardiac arrest, with one of the investigators saying the temperature in the house was “divinely hot.” The woman’s temperature was 107 (41.7 degrees Celsius) and so was another person’s. The paramedics were called into a room where Colin, the chief nurse, was performing CPR on a dead man.

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Paramedics told investigators the man had rigor mortis, meaning he had been dead for hours, undermining the staff’s claim that they were closely monitoring patients. According to the report, security videos show that no one visited the man for seven hours.

Paramedics said Colin tried to avoid checking other patients, and said everything was fine. Lt. Amy Parrinello said she replied, “You told me that before and now we have several deceased patients, so with all due respect, I don’t trust your judgment.”

At 6am, Fire Captain Andrew Holtfreter arrived and was called to another corpse. A paramedic began treating a patient whose temperature was so high it could not be measured — the ward’s thermometers reached a maximum of 108 degrees (42.2 Celsius).

Alarmed by the patients arriving in the emergency room, Memorial Hospital staff took to the street. A nurse said the house felt like “the heat wave” in a car that’s been out in the sun all day.

The fire brigade has ordered the evacuation of the house.

Soon, homicide detectives arrived in Hollywood — about the time FPL came to fix the air conditioner.

The house never opened again.

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