ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Yesterday, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti brought negligent homicide charges against the owners of a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish; 34 elderly people died there. Lawyers from the owners of St. Rita's nursing home say that a few of their patients had special needs--feeder tubes, oxygen--and would not have survived an evacuation. Attorney General Foti says the nursing home had a contract with an ambulance service that could have seen to those patients, and it had ample warning of what was to come.
Mr. CHARLES FOTI (Attorney General, Louisiana): Each nursing home has an evacuation plan, which is on file with it and with the parish--or what you--in the rest of the states would be a county...
Mr. FOTI: ...authorities that deal with emergency preparedness. This was a killer storm that not only the media but The Weather Channel, the Hurricane Center over and over said that, `You should evacuate.' During that particular time, the parish of St. Bernard called for a voluntary evacuation and also called for a mandatory evacuation.
They had about a year or so ago, in a similar type but of much less intensity--did not really hit--had evacuated. They chose not to evacuate, and we feel that's a deviation...
Mr. FOTI: ...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 medically unable or elderly unable or both--not able to take care of themselves, which need 24-hour medical attention and care. Based on that, there does not have to be any specific intent to do it. Negligent homicide means that you did not do what a reasonable person should have done.
Mr. FOTI: It is a tragedy all the way around.
SIEGEL: Look, can I pursue? What was reasonable here? Would you accept as mitigating the fact that somebody to be evacuated from a nursing home might be dependent on all kinds of devices and support systems...
Mr. FOTI: That's why...
SIEGEL: ...that might not travel very easily?
Mr. FOTI: That's wha--allegedly there were five special-needs patients, but that's why you have the ambulances with the necessary medical equipment to evacuate those people. It is also why that you should be paying careful attention to what is threatening to hit you--they had days to prepare for this--and take necessary action to protect the life of your patients.
SIEGEL: Do you assume, though, that if a patient who was ill, perhaps with special needs but not moribund, and was still inside a facility as Katrina approached, that that's a prima facie sign of negligence on somebody's part?
Mr. FOTI: I'm not trying to qualify the case at the present time. This case still has to be tried.
SIEGEL: But I'm talking about in other facilities. If somebody...
Mr. FOTI: Well, in each facility we're going to go back and investigate we will take appropriate legal action that is appropriate for the facts or circumstances that went with that particular case.
SIEGEL: Well, we've all heard about Memorial Medical Center, where people...
Mr. FOTI: Yeah, we...
SIEGEL: ...have--this past weekend discovered them. Are you investigating the circumstances there of those deaths?
Mr. FOTI: Absolutely. I've already talked to the people from the hospital.
Mr. FOTI: I'm getting their records. We have our investigators starting to look at it. We will be taking statements from witnesses. We will be taking statements from family, from friends. We'll be taking statements from staff. We will be looking at the protocol to see how they did. And if they did not follow the law, then appropriate action will be taken.
SIEGEL: One more point. When you spoke to us last, we talked about accounts of some police walking off the job in the city of New Orleans. That's also a dereliction of responsibility. As you said, it's a violation...
Mr. FOTI: That dereliction of duty does not necessarily rise--and that's--and we may be looking at that, too, but there's--we have a limited staff, and we're also dealing with rescuing people, rebuilding. We will look at every aspect and assist the local jurisdictions that will be looking at those things themselves. But people that are under Medicaid-Medicare are our direct responsibility, as one of the regulators who, as the lawyers, to look at to see what happened. And we will investigate each one, and we will do everything possible to protect not only now but in the future the safety, welfare and health of the people of this state.
SIEGEL: Attorney General Foti, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FOTI: Thank you very much for having me on your program.
SIEGEL: That's Charles Foti, who is the attorney general of the state of Louisiana, speaking to us from his office in Baton Rouge.