Lawsuits blame Atlanta senior care home in COVID-19 deaths

Family members of five people who died after contracting the coronavirus at one of the state’s hardest-hit senior care homes announced Thursday they are filing lawsuits against the assisted living facility for failing to properly protect residents.

The virus has ravaged Arbor Terrace at Cascade, where 52 residents have tested positive and 15 have died, according to state records released Wednesday. At least 34 of the facility’s staff have also tested positive for coronavirus. A nursing home in Albany is the only long-term care facility that has more coronavirus deaths, with a total of 17, according to the Department of Community Health.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Statewide, at least 336 residents of long-term care facilities have died, while 2,209 have tested positive as of Wednesday. In addition, 1,107 staff working in long-term care have tested positive.

“In this situation the families and the victims, they paid Arbor Terrace very, very good money in order to provide them security and protection,” said Rod Edmond, a physician and attorney whose firm is representing the families. “That protection was not provided at all, and unfortunately they failed them.”

The Arbor Company, which is based in Atlanta and operates senior care facilities in 11 states, has said that it had followed infection-control protocols and immediately alerted public health officials when it was first notified a resident tested positive.

The company did not comment on the lawsuits but issued a statement Thursday. “Our hearts and prayers go out to all of our families at Arbor Terrace Cascade,” said Judd Harper, president of The Arbor Company. “This is an exceptionally difficult time for our state and country and sadly, for our beloved residents and staff at Arbor Terrace Cascade.”

The lawsuits are being filed in Fulton County State Court in spite of an executive order signed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month that limits legal liability for health care providers, hospitals and long-term care facilities during the pandemic.

“It’s our belief that despite the governor’s recent order we will be able to show that there was a degree of gross negligence if not willful misconduct and perhaps fraud,” said Keith Lindsay, a law partner of Edmond’s.

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The lawsuit, if it is allowed to proceed, will test an industry that had a history of struggles before the coronavirus hit. The AJC in a series last fall exposed systemic problems across the state’s assisted living and large personal care homes that thousands of Georgia families depend on to protect their aging loved ones. The reporting revealed how the industry expanded rapidly over the past decade as investors rushed in to profit off aging baby boomers. But inadequate staffing, training problems and lax state oversight contributed to hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse, and many facilities ran into financial problems that contributed to breakdowns in care.

The website for Arbor Terrace at Cascade touts the company’s decades of experience and a “fresh approach” to senior living to create “meaningful moments” in a “safe and cozy environment.”

But during Thursday's online press conferencethe loved ones of those who perished shared concerns about how they believed care suffered during the coronavirus crisis.

Bill Mann, whose family is among those who filed suit, said he was alarmed by what he witnessed in late March.

He and other family members came wearing masks and gloves to check on his mother. They were outside the facility, but spotted a worker entering the building without any protective gear. He said when he asked about her gloves and mask, the worker said the items were in her car. The woman just walked in the facility, he said.

“That was a telltale sign,” he said.

His mother, Ernestine Mann, 84, was retired from more than 30 years of teaching at Atlanta Public Schools. She was well-known in her community and active in her church, Hoosier United Methodist.

Mann's daughterKarla McKinney, said she has tried to dismiss from her thoughts the last time she heard her mother's voice when she was gasping for air and calling out for help.

“To know that my mom’s last days or her last hours ended in such a way, it’s just very heartbreaking to not be able to be there with her, to give her just a final endorsement and expression of our love for her as well as all of the victims nationwide and in the world,” McKinney said. “This has been a terrible thing.”

The family of Eddie Johnson Jr. and his wife, Blanche Johnson, also allege that the facility failed to protect residents when it allowed staff to work without proper protective gear and didn’t warn residents in time after the outbreak occurred.

The couple was married for 63 years and both lived at Arbor Terrace at Cascade. He had been an analyst with the Georgia Department of Corrections, and she taught second grade for 38 years. After contracting the virus, they were taken to the hospital and died in early April within three days of each other.

Catherine Hendrix, 80, a retired insurance underwriter, was also among those who died, as was Dorothy McGirt, 92, who spent her career teaching high school social studies at Atlanta Public Schools. Four lawsuits were filed Thursday. A lawsuit related to McGirt’s death will be filed after a court process for her estate takes place, according to the attorneys.