Book World: James A. Cobb Jr.’s ‘Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy’

October 16, 2013

If you were to poll the American population for those professions that elicited in ordinary people instinctive suspicion and even visceral loathing, you would probably find lawyers and ­nursing-home operators near the top of the list. Money-sucking leeches preying on the desperate and helpless probably sums up the common view.

Flood of Lies” brings these two despised professions together in a riveting true-life story about Hurricane Katrina, the deaths of 35 elderly nursing home residents and the negligent homicide trial that eventually followed. On the dust jacket, John Berendt calls the book “an emotional edge-of-your-seat thriller,” and the author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” isn’t exaggerating. But “Flood of Lies” is also dispiriting, an in-your-face close-up on the pettiness and prejudices of our judicial system. As the author, James A. Cobb Jr., writes: “In America, in spite of slogans like ‘Equal justice under law’ and other platitudes, if defendants don’t have money, there is nothing equal about the justice they receive.”

Here is what happened:

As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans in 2005, the owners of St. Rita’s Nursing Home decided to “shelter in place.” Sal and Mabel Mangano, along with their grown children, laid in supplies, bought new backup generators, hunkered down and prepared to weather another tropical storm, just as they had done periodically during the previous 20 years. But this time, levees gave way, and a ­mini-tsunami swept across St. Bernard Parish, where their elder-care residence was located. When the wall of water slammed into St. Rita’s, the people who were able to reach the roof survived. The Mangano family managed to save 24 of their charges, but 35 residents were drowned in their wheelchairs and beds.

In the weeks after Katrina, rumors quickly spread that Sal and Mabel Mangano had been too venal, too miserly to bus their residents to another, safer facility and risk losing all that luscious Medicare and Medicaid income. Hadn’t the three other nursing homes in St. Bernard Parish all evacuated? It was even said that only days after the tragedy these two heartless monsters went on a buying spree in a shopping mall. Other accounts put them on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, happily enjoying a vacation cruise.

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans was emotionally as well as physically devastated. Angry and hurt people wanted to lash out, to vent their rage — and in the Manganos they found the perfect target. The aging couple might have been working-class to begin with, but they had grown rich from their nursing-home profits. Responding to the volatile mood of the time, grandstanding Louisiana Attorney General, Charles C. Foti Jr. filed charges of negligent homicide on behalf of each of the victims. To most people, including the local news media, it seemed an open-and-shut case.

So much for background.

To prove their innocence, the Manganos hired an attorney named Jim Cobb. Most of Cobb’s practice he somewhat shamefully describes as “dirty work,” mainly spent defending and protecting the interests of big corporations. While not a criminal lawyer, per se, he did have connections with the nursing-home industry and, almost on impulse, agreed to take the case. In “Flood of Lies” Cobb — a profane, hard-drinking New Orleans resident with a racy prose style — tells the story of what happened as he and his partners prepared to defend the Manganos in court.

Right at the beginning, Cobb wins the reader over by making clear his utter loathing for Allstate Insurance. If anything, insurance companies may be even more generally detested than lawyers and nursing-home operators. Following the destruction of his house, Cobb and his family were allocated a “princely sum of $1,500” for living expenses when they moved into cramped quarters in Texas. “A painfully long time would pass before we would receive another red cent from this despicable insurer, and then only after I threatened to sue them. Most, not all, of the insurance companies treated the victims of Katrina abominably. They made it so hard to recover that thousands and thousands of people just gave up and withered away, no doubt as intended all along.”

The Manganos explained to Cobb that they were ready for the storm, possessed a state-mandated emergency plan and knew nothing of any general order to evacuate. After the waters hit, they worked desperately to save lives. In short, the couple may have been guilty of bad judgment, but they weren’t reckless and negligent. As Cobb later discovers, the storm itself would have resulted in only a foot of flooding; the failure of the levees created the tremendous 10-foot deluge. And whose fault was that? The Army Corps of Engineers, which eventually admitted that the levees were poorly built and shoddily maintained.

While Cobb is hardly a disinterested narrator, he is an irresistible one. For instance, he gleefully paints “General Foti” as a supercilious, double-crossing, publicity-hungry jerk. As the opposing parties try to outmaneuver each other, it’s hardly surprising, though it is distressing, to see technicalities regularly trump fairness or common sense. As Cobb writes, “Truth is rarely absolute in a lawsuit, whether civil or criminal. Often, outcomes turn on who gets to the ‘truth’ first, locks it up, and then best defends that truth to the bitter end.”

The linchpin of Cobb’s defense is Mabel Mangano’s belief “that had she chosen evacuation, many of her beloved residents would have died in the process.” Secondarily, he would argue that the loss of life at St. Rita’s “was the fault of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the United States government, the State of Louisiana and St. Bernard Parish, a collective and colossal failure in disaster planning and emergency management.”

In the run-up to the trial, Cobb suffers one setback after another. Perhaps the most potentially devastating is the judge’s refusal to exclude photographs of the decayed corpses from being shown in court. Jurors are only human, after all, and the pictures are horrific. Cobb later learns that a large portion of the residents of St. Francisville, where the trial will take place, would make unsympathetic jurors, either because they work for the government (some as prison guards at Angola) or because of negative personal experiences with nursing homes. Meanwhile, Cobb himself suffers doubts about his ability to conduct the case, loses his temper with family and friends, pours more and more Bombay Sapphire down his throat.

Finally, two years after Katrina, the Manganos enter the St. Francisville courthouse, accompanied by Cobb and his team, to face 118 criminal counts and the possibility of life imprisonment.

“Flood of Lies” isn’t an example of objective reporting; it is a passionate and personal book, artfully constructed to maximize suspense, and carried along by the compelling narrative voice of Cobb. Above all, it reminds us of how messy and imperfect are the processes of law, how chancy are the outcomes of trials, how outrageously costly, both financially and emotionally, the pursuit of justice can be.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

FLOOD OF LIES

The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy

By James A. Cobb, Jr.

Pelican. 334 pp. $24.95

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