August 26, 2019 / 9:00 AM / a month ago

Four Florida nursing home workers face charges in post-hurricane deaths

MIAMI, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Four Miami-area nursing home workers were expected to surrender to police on Monday to face criminal charges in the deaths of a dozen patients exposed to sweltering heat with little or no air-conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017.

Defense attorneys said arrest warrants were issued on Sunday against employees of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills who are accused of wrongdoing in the 12 deaths, which the Broward County coroner has ruled as homicides.

The four defendants were set to appear for a bond hearing before a judge in nearby Fort Lauderdale, north of Miami, on Monday after they turn themselves in, their lawyers said.

Two of the defendants, the nursing home’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, and the charge nurse on duty at the time, Sergo Collin, were expected to be booked on 12 counts of manslaughter, according to their lead attorney, David Frankel.

The other defendants, both nurses, are expected to face less serious charges, he said. One was working as a contract employee for the nursing home at the time. Defense lawyers said their clients were innocent of criminal wrongdoing.

“We believe that when the evidence comes out, it will show that the staff at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was dedicated to their roles as caretakers and did everything they could under the emergency-disaster circumstances after the hurricane,” Frankel said.

He told Reuters that prosecutors had yet to decide how, or whether, to formally charge the four.

The deaths stirred an outcry over what many saw as a preventable tragedy and raised worries about the vulnerability of Florida’s large elderly population amid widespread, lingering power outages after the storm.

“The real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless care givers,” said attorney Hilham Soffan, who represents the contract nurse.

Through a spokesman, the Hollywood police department declined to comment, saying only that a statement would be issued on Monday.

The deaths have been the subject of a criminal investigation since they were first reported in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which was blamed for killing more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland in September 2017.

City officials said the nursing home continued to operate with little or no air conditioning after the storm knocked out its electricity, and daytime temperatures in the Miami area rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

State authorities said nursing home managers placed eight portable air coolers throughout the building and fans in hallways.

The facility was finally evacuated, under conditions workers at the time described as chaotic, when four residents were found dead three days after the storm made landfall.

Four more died at or en route to a nearby hospital during the evacuation, and four others ultimately succumbed to the effects of heat exposure, bringing the death toll to 12.

Frankel said the majority of those who died had been under hospice care or otherwise gravely ill.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the facility’s licence after determining that medical personnel at the home had delayed in calling for emergency assistance when temperatures inside reached excessive levels. (Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler and Clarence Fernandez)

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