Jim Cobb had to wait longer than he had planned, but he got to take a final victory lap Monday, and nursing home operators around the country should be tipping their hat to him.

James A. Cobb Jr.

Who’s Jim Cobb? That would be the voluble defense attorney who recorded wins in the two most prominent criminal trials of nursing home owners or operators over the last 20 years.

On Monday, he and co-counsel successfully fended off Broward County prosecutors’ last-ditch attempt to get something to stick in their case against former Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo. On Friday, a judge had embarrassingly tossed out the state’s case after three weeks of trial proceedings, acquitting Carballo and sending home a jury still a few days from possible deliberations.

Cobb spoke with me on Saturday from his New Orleans home, and he was exhausted but still glowing after the summary judgment in his client’s favor.

It was, he emphasized, virtually the same case as his St. Rita’s triumph 16 years earlier. St. Rita’s involved the drowning deaths of 35 patients after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. The Hollywood Hills case involved the heat-related deaths of 12 patients after air-conditioning failed after Hurricane Irma blew through.

Hollywood Hills incited nationwide rage over purported failures by nursing home leaders that later could be traced to a non-responsive power company and politicians. The St. Rita’s event sparked outraged media coverage on multiple continents, initially overshadowing the unprecedented rupture of a levee and a prosecutor’s rush to judgment.

These are the types of cases that can stain providers everywhere for years, if not generations. They can become false filler to the straw-man attacks that every long-term care operator, and every LTC employee, unfortunately knows all too well.

But not this time. Twice, on the biggest stages, Cobb prevailed. A colorful Southerner who probably wouldn’t mind trash-talking his own mother if he could beat her at trial, was in this one until the end. Partly because he had done it before and he knew how it should end.

Each time, he successfully put a tattered emergency response system in the spotlight, and he turned up the heat on overzealous public officials and politicians.

And both times, it was the fact that the defense could point to good-faith caregiving efforts that pulled providers’ butts from in front of a figurative firing squad.

Remember that: Caregivers using their proper preparation and caregiving practices can stare down the establishment, fend off ravenous mainstream media and, yes, avert potential prison sentences. Good intentions do matter.

Even before these high-profile cases, Cobb was well-known to Louisiana providers, having worked for the Louisiana Nursing Home Association in the past.

Now, he could, no doubt field calls from providers under siege for years to come. But he won’t.

This was the last ride for Cobb, he told me. He’s 70 years old now and the strain and stress is taking its toll quicker than ever. Especially with the cases where you know your client is innocent, he said. He estimated he lost “hundreds” of hours of sleep over the Hollywood Hills case, despite his belief in his client.

Charges were filed in 2019 and he originally wanted to take advantage of the state’s speedy-trial provision to pursue a court victory in the summer of 2020. And then the pandemic hit. The state judiciary shut down. When things resumed, Cobb was several years older, and making the commute from New Orleans to southern Florida was more arduous than before.

He might not write another engrossing book after this latest trial’s outcome. And there might not be new Harvard Law School teaching gigs springing up. But he’s going to find something else. He emphasized he’s not a fisherman or golfer. But he’ll figure out what to do in retirement along the way, he promised.

If nothing else, he could start looking up news coverage of his dramatic nursing home victories since he said he has no idea what’s being reported while at trial. 

And no one would blame him for replaying the St. Rita’s and Hollywood Hills victories in his mind perhaps a few hundred times. 

Grateful providers around the country should be doing just that themselves. Victories are too few and far between in this field, and, thanks to a common author, there have been perhaps none more important than these.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Executive Editor.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.