Sound and Fury Follow Florida Nursing Home Deaths. Will They Signify Anything?

It’s no surprise a Florida nursing home is getting sued after an evacuation that state officials say came too late and left 14 residents dead.

The facility’s air conditioning was down for three days after Hurricane Irma struck last month. State and local authorities say the heat made residents sick, exacerbating breathing and heart problems. The incident has spurred state legislative and regulatory proposals, along with investigations by at least two congressional committees.

What would be surprising—if you ask the plaintiffs’ attorneys—is a million-dollar award to any family that lost a loved one. Florida’s laws and industry practices make large damages awards unusual, they say.

Steve Watrel, a Jacksonville, Fla., attorney who represents plaintiffs suing nursing homes, tells me the largest awards in Florida run in the “low to mid six figures.”

Read my full story outlining the attorneys’ concerns here. Also included is the response of a tort reform advocate who calls South Florida a “plaintiffs lawyer’s playground” and says it’s good policy to limit liability claims and hold down nursing homes costs.

However legitimate the attorneys’ concerns may be, these legal hurdles haven’t stopped at least 10 plaintiffs from suing the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, its staff and owners.

Florida ranks high in the frequency and dollar amount of claims. Aon Risk Solutions estimated in a November 2016 report that nearly 8 cents of every Medicaid dollar paid to Florida nursing homes gets spent on liability losses, versus a national average of 3 cents.

Liability lawsuits aren’t the only legal blowback facing the Hollywood Hills nursing home. The state suspended its operating license and Medicaid contract—decisions its owners are appealing. The U.S. House’s Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to the nursing home’s owner, Jack Michel, on Oct. 20, requesting documents on the facility’s emergency plan and staff training. The Senate Finance Committee also launched an investigation.

The incident also is driving new regulations for Florida nursing homes, in particular a requirement to install generators, store four days of fuel, and plan for emergency cooling.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys could get a nod in the 2018 Florida legislative session, too. Watrel says there’s talk of erasing a state requirement that half of punitive damages in nursing home lawsuits go to a state trust fund.

We’ll see in January whether the high-profile Hollywood Hills incident boosts plaintiff-friendly changes in a typically industry-friendly state legislature.

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