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Veterans' families claim medical malpractice for COVID deaths at nursing homes

“We want somebody to be held liable for what they did. Because we don't want it to happen to anybody else."

NEW ORLEANS — By the time the novel coronavirus had swept through the Southeast Louisiana War Veterans Home in Reserve, it was too late for roommates Berlin Hebert Jr. and Ras Deakles. They both contracted the virus.

In early April 2020, died one day apart.

The Deakles family said they learned COVID was an issue inside the nursing home when they brought Raz’s granddaughter for a visit and were turned away, told by the staff they were on lockdown.

But when they talked to Ras on the phone and saw pictures of him on the home’s website mingling with other residents, they felt a false sense of assurance.

“We just had no idea that it was that bad in there,” said Sue Deakles, Raz’s widow.

Hebert said he called the home constantly out of concerns for his father.

“I asked the nurse, 'Is there any reason for me to be concerned that my father's been exposed?' And day after day, I was told no, he's safe,” Hebert said.

But the virus proved to be lethal inside the Southeast War Veterans Home, as it did throughout Louisiana's nursing homes, accounting for more than 40 percent of the state's COVID deaths in 2020.

Records show that in the first two months, the virus claimed at least 28 lives in inside the Southeast Veteran's 144-bed facility. The total at the home is now closer to 50, according to Donald Hodge Jr., the Baton Rouge attorney representing both families.

Hebert was a tattooed motorcycle enthusiast who lost a leg in Vietnam. A loner, according to his family, who rarely left his room.

Deakles, by contrast, was an outgoing and deeply religious Army man, a regular at bingo and other activities at the home.

But this odd couple became close friends, and they were among the state's first nursing homes deaths. Now their families have filed the state's two medical malpractice lawsuits related to COVID deaths at nursing homes.

“The medical review board found a breach in standard of care. And they also found gross negligence,” Sue Deakles said.

In Hebert's case a review panel found straight negligence, a slightly lesser ruling but still very rare given the steep hurdles to filing a medical malpractice claim in Louisiana. A medical board of three doctors must first determine negligence, something that happens in only about seven percent of claims. Beating those odds, the Hebert and Deakles lawsuits were filed this week.

“I felt vindicated. I wanted to cry,” Hebert said about his reaction to the medical panel’s finding.

“We want somebody to be held liable for what they did. Because we don't want it to happen to anybody else,” said Valerie Deakles Willman, Raz’s daughter.

In nearly identical lawsuits filed by Hodge, the families claim that Southeastern was allowing residents to congregate even after the governor ordered restrictions.

Photos of the residents mingling without mask were first published by WWL-TV in its investigative series “Standard of Care” about the high rate of nursing homes infections and deaths from COVID. Those photos are now exhibits in the lawsuits.

“There was just no possible way my dad contracted this through his own actions,” Hebert said.

“They were taking pictures of my dad playing bingo and things like that,” Willman said. “Absolutely, no doubt about it. My dad should still be here.”

The attorney has requested that the judge expand the lawsuit to a class action to cover other Southeastern patients who lost their lives.

We reached out to the veteran's home, which is run by the state, and received this written response:

“Our staff provided excellent care to the veterans living at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home during an unprecedented and difficult time. We are

aware of these lawsuits; however, we cannot provide further comment at this time on this pending litigation.”

The Louisiana Attorney General’s office is expected to represent the state-run home, but they have not yet filed a response to the lawsuits.

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