Two healthcare workers charged with aggravated manslaughter last year in connection with the deaths of 12 people at a stifling hot Hollywood nursing home are asking a judge to dismiss the cases against them, claiming former Gov. Rick Scott destroyed evidence that would have helped their defense.
Residents of the nursing home began dying three days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in South Florida on Sept. 10, 2017, with the power knocked out and the facility sweltering in temperatures that reached 99 degrees. Broward County prosecutors charged four workers at the facility, claiming the former employees neglected their duties and failed to provide adequate care in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Two of the workers — Sergo Colin, a former night shift nursing supervisor at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, and Jorge Carballo, who was the facility’s administrator — filed a motion to dismiss this week, asking a Broward County judge to toss out the cases against them because they say the state violated due process by destroying voicemails nursing home employees left on Scott’s cellphone in the days following the storm. Scott had given out his number before the hurricane and told administrators they should call him directly for assistance, the men said.
Following the deaths, which were blamed on the lack of an electrical supply to the facility’s air conditioning system, Scott sought to place the blame elsewhere “so as to cover up the debacle at (the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills) that he personally created,” the motion to dismiss claimed. And despite knowing that effort would include pursuing criminal charges against nursing home workers, Scott ordered voice messages with cries for help to be destroyed, the men said in court documents.
“As a direct result of Governor Scott’s order to destroy the recordings so as to cover up his own failings, the jury in this case will never have the opportunity to listen to heartfelt and desperate pleas to Governor Scott to please order [Florida Power & Light] to restore power to the A/C chiller,” the motion read.
In September 2017, Scott’s office told reporters who asked for the voicemails through public records requests that staffers had deleted the voice messages after they were transcribed.
Colin and Carbolla have used transcripts of voicemails and texts to Scott’s phone in their defense, but their attorney, Jim Cobb, said that’s “not the same as actually hearing the voices, the voices of concern, the voices of panic and perhaps voices of pleading.”
In response to the accusations, Scott’s Senate office — he was elected as Florida’s junior senator in 2018 — said Colin and Carballo were being held accountable for “their inexplicable failure to call 911 when people were in need.”
“Every child knows that when there is imminent danger, 911 is the number to call,” a spokeswoman for Scott said. “Yet, trained health staff at this facility didn’t even do that. In addition to not calling 911, the nursing home never pursued transferring its residents to the hospital located directly across the street that had full power.”
Cobb, the defense attorney, said after the charges were first filed last year that Memorial Regional Hospital across the street was “slammed” at the time and had no capacity to take residents of the nursing home.
A spokeswoman for the Broward County State Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment, saying the attorneys would file their response in court in the coming weeks.
About 150 people lived at the nursing home at the time Irma struck. Administrators did not evacuate the facility even as temperatures rose during the three days the air-conditioning system was out, and despite the fact that Memorial Regional Hospital is located next door.
In response to the nursing home deaths, Scott issued a series of emergency orders — including one that required nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators and enough fuel to keep their operations and cooling systems running for at least 96 hours after a disruption. Those orders quickly became the subjects of months-long legal disputes between the state and industry groups.
State lawmakers eventually reached a compromise that required facilities to submit emergency power plans verifying that they installed an alternate power source that could supply electricity for 96 hours. The rules also set requirements for how much backup fuel must be present on site, depending on the facility’s classification as a nursing home or an assisted living facility.
But even as charges were being filed against the former nursing home workers, in August last year, nearly 60 percent of the state’s nursing homes had not yet installed equipment in line with those guidelines.
The Hollywood Hills nursing home had a backup generator that kicked in after Hurricane Irma took out two transformers feeding power to the facility. But the generator powered only the lights, medical equipment and appliances. A separate transformer that powered the central air-conditioning system remained out of commission.
Hollywood Hills administrators said they brought in portable air chillers to cool the building. But the portable chillers may have made matters worse because they weren’t properly ventilated and pushed additional heat into a confined space, according to the testimony of an engineering expert hired by the state to evaluate the disaster.