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Law360 (May 14, 2020, 7:01 PM EDT) -- Plaintiffs' firm Morgan & Morgan on Thursday said it is preparing lawsuits against two Florida nursing homes that have had 34 combined deaths from COVID-19 in their facilities, which could usher in a wave of litigation after a failed attempt by the industry at getting immunity during the pandemic.
In a press conference, Morgan & Morgan attorney Alexander Clem said the firm is representing families that have relatives at Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center in Live Oak, Florida, and Opis Coquina Center in Ormond Beach, Florida, and will be filing pre-suit demands on both facilities in the coming days.
The suits will be among the first against Florida nursing homes, whose request last month for a waiver of liability during this pandemic was rebuffed by the governor.
Clem said the firm has spoken to former employees at Suwannee who said they were told to falsify data about residents' fevers and were not given personal protective equipment such as N95 masks. He said former workers were also given bad information about whether they could get the virus themselves and were told tests were not available for them.
"And this is what we know before we get records and engage in discovery," Clem said.
He added that his team has a "strong suspicion" of similar practices at the Coquina facility but does not have confirmation yet.
"We've talked to the families, but they just don't know," Clem said. "The only way for these families to get answers is through civil litigation."
The Florida Health Care Association, an advocacy group for the long-term care facility industry that asked the state last month for immunity from these types of lawsuits, said Thursday that Morgan & Morgan's announcement is a "perfect example" of attorneys trying to profit off a crisis.
"From day one of this COVID-19 crisis, Florida's nursing centers have been on the front line of keeping their residents safe," FHCA spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said. "It's unfortunate that while our caregivers work tirelessly to protect residents and create supportive environments, trial lawyers are already positioning themselves to profit from this tragic situation by organizing individual tort actions."
Of the more than 1,800 COVID-19 deaths in Florida, about 40 percent have been of residents in long-term care facilities. The outbreaks at Suwannee and Coquina, where 18 and 16 residents have died, respectively, are among the worst in the state, according to figures from the Florida Department of Health.
Steve Watrel of Coker Law, a Jacksonville attorney who specializes in suing nursing homes, said some deaths are unavoidable, particularly if they happened early in the pandemic before most facilities locked down. But he said the majority of nursing homes have managed to successfully contain the virus and keep residents safe.
"If this were spreading like wildfire at every facility, it'd be one thing," Watrel said. "But it's at the facilities that are cutting corners."
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down visitation to nursing homes in mid-March, which has worked to contain the virus in those facilities but also has kept residents' loved ones from making sure their relatives are being cared for properly, according to Watrel, who said he has seen an uptick in calls about neglect and poor care at long-term care facilities.
In one case, he said, a resident was transferred to a hospital with a severe bed sore and the family was not alerted. Family members learned of it days later when the hospital called to ask if they were going to come visit their relative, he said.
"They can make excuses and just say coronavirus, but that's not an excuse for poor care," Watrel said.
On Wednesday, DeSantis said at a press conference that he is working on figuring out how to reopen long-term care facilities to visitors in some capacity, citing the psychological and social cost of keeping families separated.
"This is an issue, and we can't just turn a blind eye," DeSantis said. "We've got to figure out a way to get to yes and give people hope and be able to see their family. Maybe it requires [personal protective equipment], maybe it requires a rapid test, but these are folks who really could use a psychological boost."
He said the state is deploying new COVID-19 tests that can give results in less than an hour and urged nursing home workers to get tested to catch any infections before they become outbreaks.
Representatives for Suwannee and Coquina did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
--Editing by Stephen Berg.
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