Nursing Home Owners Indicted in Post-Katrina Deaths

The owners of a nursing home St. Bernard Parish, La., have been indicted on 35 counts of negligent homicide over the deaths of elderly patients at their facility after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Salvador and Mabel Mangano are also accused of 64 counts of cruelty to the infirm.

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A grand jury in Louisiana this week indicted the owners of a nursing home where 35 people died after Hurricane Katrina. St. Rita's Nursing Home was in St. Bernard Parish, a coastal suburb of New Orleans. The husband and wife who owned it have been charged with negligent homicide and cruelty to the infirm. Their lawyers say they did everything in their power to keep their residents safe.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: Sixty-six-year-old Salvador Mangano and his wife Mabel were arrested two weeks after Hurricane Katrina when the Louisiana State Attorney General, Charles Foti, charged them with negligent homicide.

In an interview with NPR last year, Foti said the Manganos ignored mandatory evacuation orders and instead kept their fragile residents in place, putting them directly in harm's way as the hurricane approached.

Mr. CHARLES FOTI (Attorney General, Louisiana): They chose not to evacuate and we feel that's a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable hospital administrator and/or owner of a facility that is caring for people that are unable to take care of themselves, which need 24-hour medical attention and care.

MARTIN: Formal charges were delayed in the case because the state's court system itself was dismantled temporarily by the storm. Then this week, after six hours of closed door testimony and deliberations, a grand jury charged the Manganos with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 64 counts of cruelty to the infirm.

In addition, more than 30 civil lawsuits have been filed against the couple by patients injured at the nursing home and some of the families of the people who died there.

Tom Rodrig(ph) represents one of those families. His 92-year-old mother, Eva, died at St. Rita's.

MARTIN: Were the Manganos negligent?

Mr. TOM RODRIG: I would have to tell you they made a horrible decision not to move those people. If that equates to negligence, then so be it.

MARTIN: Rodrig is the emergency services director for neighboring Jefferson Parish. He was frantically spearheading emergency relief efforts during the storm and had assumed the Manganos had evacuated his mother and all the residents to safety, and he knew all the nursing homes in the area had written evacuation plans in place.

But when he called St. Rita's on Sunday, the day of the storm, he was shocked to learn they were going to ride it out.

Mr. RODRIG: I said you need to evacuate. Whatever happens, happens. God's going to determine that for you. But you shouldn't sit there and play God.

MARTIN: But the Manganos have maintained that they never received an official order to evacuate and they only did what they thought was in the best interest of their residents.

Mr. JAMES COBB (Attorney, Salvador and Mabel Mangano): They didn't abandon anyone. In fact, they saved 52 lives.

MARTIN: James Cobb is the couple's attorney. He says the Manganos ran this nursing home for decades through many big storms, and he says based on that experience the Manganos chose to stay rather than risk evacuating their frail residents, a decision they thought would save the most number of people.

Mr. COBB: You know you haven't flooded in 20 years and it's late on Sunday afternoon. What do you do? You shelter in place. So you do that. You rely upon those systems that have been put in place to protect you. Those systems failed. Not the Manganos.

MARTIN: Cobb says the Manganos are being used as a scapegoat for the larger failings of government at all levels before and during Katrina, and the couple has filed a legal document asking that a long list of local, state and federal officials, including Governor Kathleen Blanco, be named as co-defendants in the civil lawsuits.

Meanwhile the Manganos are scheduled to be arraigned on October 4 and a trial is expected early next year.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, New Orleans.

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