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Families of residents who died of COVID-19 sue Freedom Square retirement community

The facility “chose to place profits over residents,” the two lawsuits say.
Ambulances line the entrance of the Freedom Square of Seminole retirement community on April 17 as officials launched an emergency evacuation of residents who tested positive for COVID-19.
Ambulances line the entrance of the Freedom Square of Seminole retirement community on April 17 as officials launched an emergency evacuation of residents who tested positive for COVID-19. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 9, 2020
Updated Jun. 10, 2020

SEMINOLE ⁠— The families of two men who died in a COVID-19 outbreak at a Seminole nursing home are suing the facility, claiming their loved ones died due to mismanagement and poor communication.

Relatives of Donald Jack, 75, and Christopher Pugh, 84, filed separate lawsuits Monday accusing Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation and Nursing Services of having insufficient infection control measures in place and failing to communicate with family members about the extent of the coronavirus outbreak until it was reported in the media.

The facility “chose to place profits over residents and ignore deficiencies in their emergency preparedness plan and in their infection prevention and control program,” the lawsuits say.

“It’s a disgrace, really, not just here but all over the whole country,” said attorney Bennie Lazzara Jr., who is representing the families of Jack and Pugh. “The numbers are staggering.”

Related: Coronavirus cases growing by more than 1,000 a day as testing ramps up

Freedom Square executive director Michael Mason sent a statement to the Times on Wednesday saying Freedom Square does not comment on pending litigation.

The coronavirus has hit seniors especially hard. A recent Tampa Bay Times analysis found that 83 percent of Floridians who died from the virus were 65 and older, and 43 percent of deaths were tied to long-term care facilities.

One of the deadliest outbreaks in the state took place at Seminole Pavilion. The nursing home and rehabilitation center is part of Freedom Square of Seminole, a sprawling retirement community off Seminole Boulevard just north of Park Boulevard N that also includes assisted living and independent living housing. The death toll so far is 32 residents and one employee, according to a Times count.

Related: As Florida nursing home deaths tick upward, widespread testing stalls

The 40-page complaints were filed in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court on behalf of personal representatives Jessica Gunter, the step-granddaughter of Jack, and Steven Pugh, the son of Christopher Pugh. They lodge a host of allegations against Freedom Square, its corporate owner and management company, and its administrator.

Among them: not supplying or requiring employees to wear personal protective equipment; allowing asymptomatic staff who had been exposed to the virus to continue working inside the facility; waiting too long to alert the Florida Department of Health of a potential outbreak; and failing to update staff, residents and family members about the virus.

“As a result of Defendants’ acts and omissions and total disregard for the residents, the Facility experienced systemic failure and became the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pinellas County,” the lawsuits say.

The suit alleges four counts of wrongdoing, including breach of fiduciary duty and violating a Florida law that protects vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect or exploitation.

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Freedom Square learned of its first COVID-19 case on April 9, when a resident of Seminole Pavilion Rehabilitation tested positive. He died the next day.

Related: For family of deceased Pinellas nursing home patient, confusion and anger

Over the next week, more residents tested positive, but some family members say they weren’t notified until the media reported on the outbreak. On April 17, all 95 residents of Seminole Pavilion were evacuated.

Donald Jack was one of them. According to his medical examiner report, he tested positive for COVID-19 at the nursing home and was transferred to Northside Hospital on the day of the evacuation. The report does not say when he tested positive for COVID-19. He died on April 21. Christopher Pugh was moved to Largo Medical Center with worsening respiratory distress after testing positive for COVID-19, according to his medical examiner report.

Eventually, more than 100 staff and residents tested positive for the virus.

Lazzara, who works in the Tampa office of the law firm Wilkes & McHugh, said he hopes the lawsuits will shed more light on the breakdowns inside the facility, and who was responsible.

“We just feel these people — they are defenseless,” he said of the nursing home residents. “And how do you gauge a society or civilization except by how they take care of their defenseless and enfeebled elderly?”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Freedom Square’s executive director.

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