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Care Home Owners Sue in Katrina Deaths

September 06, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home, arrested in the deaths of 34 patients who died in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters, are suing the government, saying federal, state and local officials failed to make sure vulnerable citizens were evacuated as the storm approached.

The lawsuit, filed last week, names the Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. and numerous other authorities and agencies.

"In the filing of this complaint, we have sought to hold them accountable ... to get them to take responsibility for their actions," attorney James Cobb said Tuesday.

He is representing Salvador A. and Mable B. Mangano, the owners of St. Rita's; they have not been formally charged with negligent homicide in the deaths because a grand jury has yet to be convened in badly damaged St. Bernard Parish.

St. Rita's was the only nursing home in the parish that did not evacuate its patients amid dire warnings before Katrina hit a year ago -- although Cobb said 36 of 57 nursing homes in the New Orleans metropolitan area chose to "shelter in place" rather than leave.

More than 30 civil complaints have been filed against the Manganos by survivors or relatives of those who died at St. Rita's, Cobb said. But he defended his clients' actions, saying the owners chose not to evacuate patients by bus because the nursing home had never flooded.

"We've been there for 20 years of storms in this area," said Cobb. "We never lost a resident. We never evacuated once. The difference is

St. Rita's -- which sat 12 feet above sea level, at one of the highest points in the parish, according to Cobb -- ended up under 13 feet of water when the city flooded.

In compliance with its state-approved emergency plan, the nursing home had stocked a two-week supply of fuel, water, food and medication, and had adequate medical staff on the premises, Cobb said.

"Sheltering in place is a recognized and acceptable methodology," he added.

During a news conference, Cobb outlined the basis for the lawsuit.

He alleged, among other things, that the Army Corps of Engineers had failed to build adequate flood protection around New Orleans; that the governor's office had not followed its emergency operations plan; that the Louisiana transportation department had neglected to mobilize vehicles and support to evacuate at-risk patients; and that St. Bernard Parish had failed to issue a written mandatory evacuation order as required by law.

Roderick Hawkins, a spokesman in Blanco's office, would not comment on the lawsuit, but said the state's position was that the nursing homes had a "legal obligation to submit their evacuation plan to the state."

"It's on them," Hawkins said.

When the Manganos were arrested, the attorney general said they had been warned repeatedly about the risks of not evacuating their residents.

"They were asked if they wanted to be evacuated. They refused," Foti said at the time. "They had a contract to move. They did not."

The Manganos' inaction, he said, had "resulted in the deaths of their patients."

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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