Nursing home operator ordered to pay $43.5 million in wrongful death lawsuit

The payment is to go to the estate of a man whose family said negligent care led to his death at a Rome nursing facility that had been cited for repeated state and federal violations.

Attorneys for the plaintiff said the verdict against George D. Houser is believed to be among the highest in state history against a nursing home operator.

Earlier this week, Houser, 62,  filed for bankruptcy protection, listing total assets of between $20 million and $100 million.

The verdict is not the end of his legal troubles.

Houser, who operated Forum Group Corp. and its subsidiary, Forum Group at Moran Lake Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Rome, faces federal charges filed in April in which he is accused of bilking the Medicare and Medicaid programs of more than $30 million.

According to the federal indictment -- in which his wife, Rhonda Washington Houser, 46, also is charged -- those Medicare and Medicaid  payments were supposed to go toward care of residents at Houser's three nursing homes.

Instead, federal prosecutors allege the Housers funneled the money to purchase luxury cars and real estate, including a $1.3 million Atlanta home for George Houser's ex-wife.

No trial date has been set for the federal case, said Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Atlanta. Houser's attorney in that case, Christopher P. Twyman, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Houser is a Harvard Law School graduate and attorney admitted to practice law in Georgia in 1972, according to the State Bar of Georgia's website.

He represented himself in the three-day wrongful death trial, which was heard in Floyd County Superior Court in Rome.  He could not be reached for comment because after the verdict he was immediately taken to the county jail on a contempt of court charge. He was ordered to spend 48 hours in jail.

No one appeared to be home at his Hammond Drive N.E. residence in Sandy Springs.

In the 52-page wrongful death complaint, filed in March of last year, Loretta Terhune, whose 80-year-old father, Morris Ellison, died April 17, 2007, charged the nursing home failed to provide adequate care.

Her father, who was admitted to the facility a year earlier, fell numerous times, breaking his hip in one instance, according to the lawsuit. The nursing home also did not notify Ellison's doctors or family of his injuries.

"Mr. Houser, through his companies, systematically drained the money and resources from his nursing homes [and] caused all sorts of shortages of food, water and medicine and basic supplies," said Stephen G. Lowry, one of Terhune's two attorneys. "He was severely neglected at the time of his death, malnourished and severely dehydrated."

At trial, a nursing home director testified the facility lacked the funds to pay its staff, do laundry and pay bills.

The Georgia Department of Human Resources' Office of Regulatory Services conducted numerous inspections of the facility over several years. The agency closed it and terminated all federal funding after a May 23, 2007, inspection found "Moran Lake’s deficiencies constituted violations of state and federal regulations, nursing home regulations, Georgia state health regulations, and National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code Standards."

Moran Lake since has resumed operations under a different management company.

Staff writers Katie Leslie and Dan Raley contributed to this article.

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