Victims of nursing home abuse, Maj. Michael A. Prieto has got your six
Published in 2014 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
By Lauren Peck on February 18, 2014
When a woman came to Mike Prieto in 2007 after her 82-year-old father died at a nursing home from an untreated broken hip, Prieto thought it would be one of his “run-of-the-mill” cases. Instead, the case ended in a $43.5 million verdict—believed to be the highest in Georgia history against a nursing home operator—with the owner arrested for running what Prieto described as “a house of horrors.”
The nursing home was perpetually short on food; the washer and dryer were broken; at times, there was no air conditioning or hot water. Prieto interviewed former employees. “They literally would use their money to buy supplies for these residents, to bring in things from home, to wash clothes,” he says. “Your heart broke not only for the victims, but also for the people who could have walked away and gotten another job. … They knew if they weren’t there to care for those residents, no one else would be.”
At the same time, George Houser, a Harvard-educated attorney and owner of Forum Group Corp., which operated the nursing home, was buying real estate, houses and luxury cars.
“Mr. Houser contacted me and in essence told me that he would never pay me a penny,” Prieto says.
At Slover, Prieto, Marigliano & Holbert in Atlanta, Prieto has developed one of the largest long-term care plaintiff’s practices in the state, but growing up, he was torn between law and a life in the military. His parents represent this dichotomy: His Cuban father fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion before emigrating to the U.S., while his mother served as a deputy clerk for the Georgia superior court system in Rome.
He remembers watching attorneys like Bobby Lee Cook in action. “I liked the adversarial process,” Prieto says. “And I liked the idea of having an opportunity to represent the underdog against the establishment.”
Initially, Prieto joined the Army and deployed to the Gulf during Desert Storm. “I grew up playing team sports, and I consider the Army the ultimate team because it’s being part of something larger than yourself,” he says.
But the law kept calling. After graduating from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law in 1998, a friend in Birmingham asked Prieto to be local counsel on a 1999 Georgia nursing home case.
Prieto represented a 90-year-old woman and her daughter after the mother’s leg was amputated, due to an untreated pressure ulcer that became gangrenous. “Both of them were just as feisty as they could be, and I loved them from the first moment I met them,” he says. “This lady told me, ‘Mike, all I want to do is get enough money so I can die at home.’” She did. After litigation, she hired 24/7 home health care and passed away two months later. “It was to date the most gratifying case I’ve ever been involved in,” Prieto says.
In the Houser case, Prieto focused on Floyd County’s pride in its medical community; he cited statistics about the county’s top-notch medical facilities. Then he showed pictures of Morris Ellison, the 82-year-old father of his client.
“[He] was completely emaciated, was malnourished, fecal matter was rubbed all over the wall,” Prieto says. “My client was 3.2 miles from some of the best medical care in the country, and he was deprived of that medical care as a result of Mr. Houser’s greed.”
The jury awarded Ellison’s estate $43.5 million. In 2012, Houser was convicted of federal charges—including conspiracy to defraud Medicare and Medicaid—and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“[He] was just used to getting away with anything,” Prieto says. “No one had ever held George Houser accountable.”
In 2004, Prieto felt compelled to rejoin the military and in 2009 deployed to Afghanistan, leaving behind his practice and newborn twins, one of whom was still in the neonatal intensive care unit.
His fellow attorneys helped out in his absence. “They all were very grateful for what I was doing,” he says.
His baby daughter was less forgiving. When he returned and held her for the first time, he says with a smile, “She wailed like you would not believe. I got tickled to death. I just said to her, ‘I’m going to remind you of this every day for the rest of your life.’”
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