Hollywood Hills owners up off the mat, courtroom drama all but guaranteed

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Lawyers and legal finaglings are rich fodder for some of the most popular movies and television productions ever made. Get ready for another big show in that regard, and long-term care will be at its core.

If raised eyebrows could make noise, mine would have been shouting over the weekend. The occasion was a glance at my cell phone's news feed. Jim Cobb was back in our lives.

That's Jim Cobb as in the New Orleans attorney who successfully defended Sal and Mabel Mangano against negligent homicide charges after 35 residents drowned in their St. Rita's Nursing Home after hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

The Manganos were vilified around the globe as media outlets in dozens of languages splashed the discovery of the dead nursing home residents in broadcasts, online and in newspapers. Cobb and his team got them cleared of all charges, turning the case around so that government figures and policies became main culprits.

Now, he has stepped forward to defend the owners of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Florida. That's where the deaths of 14 residents have been attributed to living without air conditioning after Hurricane Irma hit. The facility and its operators have been denounced far and wide, including from inside and outside the profession.

No criminal charges have been filed, although an open investigation keeps the possibility alive. Some families of deceased residents, however, have already filed civil lawsuits.

They'll have to get through Cobb to be successful, no easy task.

I talked with the outspoken attorney on two occasions regarding the St. Rita's case, and both were memorable. The first time was right after he decided to defend the Manganos. They were then regarded as pariahs in many quarters — including by many long-term care operators who didn't appreciate being tarred with the same brush simply because they were in the same profession.

A folksy Cobb boldly declared in a Southern accent that his clients were being widely misunderstood and would be found not guilty of all charges. Shortly afterward, the judge in the case applied a gag order to all participants — accused, survivors' family members and attorneys included. That wiped out what surely would have been rich commentary for many months.

It wasn't until almost two years later, when the case was decided, that I got Cobb on the phone again.

“That was a severe butt whipping!” he joyfully roared to me. I hadn't ever had a lawyer talk to me like that on the record before then, or since. And I doubt if I ever will again — unless perhaps Cobb steers Hollywood Hills' owners clear of lawsuits and any prosecution that might come.

Cobb told New Orleans radio station WGNO over the weekend that the cases are similar. Both, he asserted, involve wrongful government finger pointing and “politicians trying to scapegoat” facility employees.

Cobb pointed out that Hollywood Hills staff said they made numerous calls to the utility company and 911, each time getting assurances that help was on the way. Moving residents out would have created a “damned if you do and damned if you don't” situation, he asserted, citing research that elderly residents are more likely to die if moved than if they shelter in place.

Much like the backlash after Katrina hit, government figures have disparaged the Hollywood Hills provider. Some of the loudest attacks have come from Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). Similarly, government prosecutors loaded up against Cobb in Louisiana, even to the extent of having the governor there testify on their behalf. The Hollywood Hills case has gone further, already drawing appeals courts decisions on regulatory matters and compelling federal lawmakers to hold hearings.

Cobb isn't cowed. He told WGNO that Florida's governmental bodies should have had procedures in place to deal with the threat of power losses at nursing homes after storms. Since a trio of tragic hurricanes this fall, in fact, it's an idea that has already been taken up. Measures have been proposed to ensure that nursing homes are among the places that receive immediate attention when natural disasters disrupt services.

The real irony of this situation is that just a few weeks ago I bought Cobb's book about the St. Rita's case, “Flood of Lies: The St. Rita's Nursing Home Tragedy." It is described by impressed reviewers as a page-turning thriller by a “wily, profane” lawyer. It somehow sneaked by me four years ago when it was first released.

Nonetheless, I thought I would still find it interesting in 2017, especially given my personal connections to the case. (I read the first chapter Wednesday and it was fantastic.) If nothing else, I figured it would be a flashback to an incredibly sad, newsy and dramatic time.

Now, it appears we all could be reliving parts of it in real time. Hold onto your seat.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.

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