A jury will soon decide if the manslaughter trial of a Florida nursing home administrator is due to malfeasance or the unfortunate result of a catastrophic storm.
Jorge Carballo is on trial for the 2017 deaths of nine residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after Hurricane Irma resulted in widespread power losses across the state. Twelve residents died from overheating, but prosecutors recently dropped three of the cases. Charges against three nurses also were dropped, and they will testify against Carballo, according to various news reports.
Prosecutors claim that Carballo failed to give appropriate instructions to staff after the air conditioning system stopped working when the facility lost power. They argue the nursing home became “ridiculously hot,” and Carballo failed to order the evacuation of the 150-bed facility.
“He had his staff buy some fans to push some hot air around and had some portable AC units installed,” lead prosecutor Chris Killoran told the jury in opening statements Monday. Killoran said temperatures on the second floor where the deceased residents lived was “even worse.”
Prosecutors, though, are battling a defense lawyer with experience getting not guilty verdicts for nursing home owners charged with residents’ deaths in the wake of powerful storms.
Attorney James Cobb successfully defended Salvador and Mabel Mangano against charges of negligent homicide in the drowning deaths of 35 residents at their New Orleans nursing home after Hurricane Katrina swamped parts of the city in 2005. In a case that originally caused an uproar of indignation against the Manganos internationally, a jury found them not guilty of all charges. “A lot of mistakes were made, but they should not be blamed on just two people. How could you punish these two people for doing what they thought was right?” a juror said at the time.
Cobb seems poised to use a similar defense for Carballo, arguing that he did not “abandon” staff and residents, as prosecutors allege, but rather he is being made a “scapegoat” for failures at Florida Power & Light.
A state report showed that facility administrators participated in statewide calls with regulators and were given then-Gov. Rick Scott’s cell number to call for assistance, which the staff did after calls to the electric company went unanswered. Even that proved unsuccessful, though, and Cobb told jurors power wasn’t restored until media stories on the situation. The report also showed that the facility had extra food and water and fuel for a generator.
Cobb said Carballo was “following published research that shows moving frail, elderly patients comes with a high risk of death,” an AP report noted. He used similar research in the Mangano case, describing it to a New Orleans radio station in 2017 as a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation.
“Hurricanes are unpredictable,” Cobb said during the radio interview. “Stuff happens during hurricanes that can’t be planned for. If something happens that can’t be planned for, you do the best you can.”
The Florida victims ranged in age from 57 to 99 and had body temperatures up to 108 degrees, according to paramedics. Prosecutors must show that Carballo “acted recklessly and showed gross and careless disregard for his patients’ safety,” according to the AP report. He faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. Legal observers expect the case to last about three weeks.