Cecil Dellinger woke up early on June 20, 1999, walked out of Room 160 of his Winter Garden nursing home and, unseen by staff members, wandered out an exit door.

Dellinger, a 94-year-old patient with acute dementia, never returned.

Three days later, police found Dellinger barely alive. The former Ohio steelworker strayed into a salvage yard next to Quality Health Care Center and lay down in the gutted engine compartment of a junked car. His exposed skin cooked in the June sun and on the superheated metal, leaving second- and third-degree burns over 24 percent of his body. He lived another 31 days before dying of a blood infection caused by his wounds. "No living being deserves such a death," said Dellinger's son, George.

Now George Dellinger is suing the nursing home, which says it wouldn't have admitted his father had it known he was prone to wander.

The Dellinger case is part of an explosion of lawsuits in recent years that accuse Florida nursing homes of neglecting and, in many cases, killing their residents.

The litigation boom underscores a crisis in health care for Florida's oldest, frailest and most vulnerable residents. Nursing-home chains are filing for bankruptcy protection. Insurance companies are pulling out of the state. And the Florida Legislature is poised to consider a law that would strictly limit damage awards against nursing homes.

The industry cries that it is being run out of business by a flood of frivolous lawsuits, but a four-month investigation by the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel found the vast majority of the lawsuits in Central and South Florida are anything but frivolous. Hundreds of the lawsuits accuse nursing homes of ignoring festering sores that lead to infections and amputations, doing nothing to prevent falls that snap brittle bones and failing to treat malnutrition and dehydration that can result in death.

Nursing-home residents are being sexually assaulted, physically abused by staff, neglected and given improper medical treatment, the newspapers found in their review of the 924 lawsuits filed against facilities in Central and South Florida during the past five years.

Nearly half the suits claim residents died at the hands of the nursing homes.

The newspapers counted 231 suits in 2000 alone -- an increase of 157 percent compared with the 90 suits filed in 1996. The rise was even more striking in Central Florida, where the number of suits more than tripled -- to 66 in 2000 from 20 five years earlier.

Advocates for the elderly contend that simply limiting nursing-home suits -- but not addressing the serious problems of long-term care -- leaves Florida's oldest residents even more at risk of injuries and death.

"Don't discuss tort reform with us when people are still being abused, neglected and dying in nursing homes," said E. Bentley Lipscomb, AARP's Florida director.


Beneath the lawsuits lies a host of financial and quality-of-care problems that have plagued the nursing-home industry for years.

So many parts of the state's health-care system for the elderly are broken that a cure to Florida's nursing-home crisis won't come quick or easy.

Among the newspapers' findings:

Staffing levels at some nursing homes are low, increasing the odds that overworked caregivers will make mistakes. Pay is generally low, too, which causes turnover among nursing-home workers. At one nursing home in South Florida, John Franzen died because no one helped him to the bathroom. The 86-year-old retired carpenter fell in the bathroom doorway, broke his hip and died three weeks later.

"There were no people to help him," said his daughter, Nancy Burkett, who is suing the home. "They were too busy." The nursing home's attorney asserts that its staff cannot give one-on-one care all the time and cannot restrain residents.

Florida's regulatory body, the Agency for Health Care Administration, rarely fines or closes bad nursing homes and has little power to correct recurring quality problems. The agency has revoked the licenses of only eight nursing homes since 1995.