A legal battle is brewing over the death toll at Suwannee Health and Rehabilitation Center, the epicenter of Suwannee County’s covid-19 outbreak.
Florida law firm Morgan & Morgan announced Thursday it was preparing to file a lawsuit against the Live Oak nursing home on behalf of the families of residents who died of the virus.
All 18 confirmed covid-19 deaths in Suwannee County involved residents at the nursing home, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. It wasn’t immediately clear how many families Morgan & Morgan is representing.
Staffers have also tested positive for the virus.
The Department of Health’s Suwannee County has confirmed a cluster of cases are linked to the nursing home. The state has not provided cumulative data on the totals, only releasing numbers that give a moment-to-moment snapshot of the situation.
Pre-suit notices are a prerequisite in nursing home litigation. After the notices are filed, the parties have 75 days to try to reach settlement agreements. Morgan & Morgan attorney Alexander Clem, however, said that rarely occurs.
The law firm is also representing at least three families of residents who died at the Opis Coquina Center in Ormond Beach from COVID-19 and that pre-suit notices will be filed in the next 10 days. Opis Coquina Center has had 16 residents die from COVID-19, according to state data.
Attempts to contact both nursing facilities on Thursday were unsuccessful.
The move by Morgan & Morgan comes amid an unsettled legal environment in which Congress and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration have been asked to shield nursing homes from litigation related to the pandemic.
As of Thursday morning, 814 residents and staff members at long-term care facilities across the state had died of COVID-19. Long-term care facility deaths account for 43 percent of the overall COVID-19 deaths in Florida, with the respiratory disease particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying medical conditions.
The Florida Health Care Association, the state’s largest nursing-home association, sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis last month requesting that he use his executive authority to provide nursing homes with civil and criminal protections from litigation stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The April 3 letter, signed by association President Emmett Reed, said the proposed blanket immunity should not apply to willful or intentional criminal misconduct or gross negligence. But Reed argued that problems that resulted from staffing or resource shortages should not be considered misconduct or negligence.
DeSantis has not directly answered whether he will grant such immunity.
Morgan & Morgan attorney Matt Morgan said the firm will fight efforts in Florida and other states to shield nursing homes from liability.
“There’s no question that as a collective group, these facilities have not handled this outbreak well, and they have contributed significantly to the spread,” Morgan said. “As a firm, we feel that we have a duty to hold these nursing homes responsible for their gross negligence, otherwise they’ll continue to do it in the future.”
Attempts to shield nursing homes have touched off political battles in Tallahassee during the past two decades.
The Legislature in 2014 approved legislation that prevented “passive” investors from being named as defendants in lawsuits stemming from injuries to nursing-home residents. The bill also made it harder to sue nursing homes for punitive damages, requiring courts to hold evidentiary hearings before residents could pursue punitive-damage claims.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.