November 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Visiting his grandmother at a nursing home in 1983, Jim Wilkes expected to find her in capable, caring hands. Instead, he found her fourth-floor bed empty. “I thought maybe they’d taken her to the hospital,” says Wilkes. Then he heard a noise. “I looked, and she was under the bed, naked, lying in the fetal position,” he recalls, still outraged. “That night, we took her out of there.”

Wilkes, who earned his law degree that same year, didn’t sue. But neither did he forget. Six years later, while handling primarily divorce and minor liability cases, he received a grim reminder of his grandmother’s plight when an elderly woman walked into his Tampa, Fla., office with a disturbing story about her 89-year-old sister, who had died in a nursing home, her body pocked with bedsores. The woman had been referred to Wilkes by an attorney who didn’t think she had a big-money claim. “He told her, ‘There’s no value to this case,’ ” recalls Wilkes. ” ‘But I know this crazy guy…’ ”

In the decade since then—that first case was settled within a year—Wilkes, 49, has become a thorn in the flesh of the long-term care industry in this country. In Florida alone there are some 700 nursing homes and 2,300 assisted-living facilities. In all, he has brought in $250 million in judgments and settlements for thousands of abused and neglected nursing-home residents. In one recent case, Wilkes won a state-record $15.2 million judgment for the estate of John L. Butler against the Brian Center nursing home in Tampa. Butler suffered more than 30 falls during his time at the center and died at age 65 of emaciation and malnutrition. “Nothing can bring my son back to me,” says his mother, Emma, 86. “But Jim “Wilkes helped make sure a dangerous, deadly nursing home was brought to justice.”

In addition to filing lawsuits, Wilkes has taken on the nursing-home establishment politically, founding and funding the Coalition to Protect America’s Elders. The group lobbies state and federal authorities on behalf of such reforms as installing surveillance cameras in patients’ rooms and limiting the number of residents assigned to any given health-care worker. Some say Wilkes’s efforts have brought about improvements. “The elderly are sorely under-represented,” says Sarah Greene Burger, executive director of the National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Care Reform. “Jim recognizes the suffering of past residents and seeks ways of protecting future residents.”

Critics claim Wilkes does more harm than good. Ed Towey, of the Florida Health Care Association, says Wilkes’s coalition unfairly demonizes the industry, making potential jurors prejudiced against nursing homes. “When monies are being drained from the system [for] lawsuits, that is money that cannot be used to improve care,” he says. Responds Wilkes: “For them to imply that they would give back [money] to resident care is deceitful.”

His critics, no doubt, would be happier if Wilkes had gone into music as he’d first planned. “I traded Mother’s piano for a Stella guitar when I was 14,” says the Tampa-born Wilkes, whose parents—his mother, Frances, and his late father, Emmitt—were both college teachers. Joining the Army in 1969 after a year in college, Wilkes became an entertainment director in Southeast Asia, managing such special events as Bob Hope’s Christmas ’71 tour of Vietnam. After returning to cocktail-hour gigs all over the U.S., Wilkes tired of the hand-to-mouth existence and returned to school (though the frustrated musician still cuts CDs on his own label for friends). He went on to earn his law degree from Stetson University in Deland, Fla., in 1983, by which time two of his four marriages were also behind him. “I’ve settled down a lot,” he says with a grin.

Fourth wife Gail brought her children Ashley Halley, 25, and Travis Halley, 22, to the marriage—12 years and going strong. Gail, 54, says her husband is “one of a kind. He’s got the Energizer Bunny inside.” Wilkes’s partner Tim McHugh concurs: “He’s always ready. It revolves around the law and all that, but if I called him at 9 o’clock and said, ‘I’ve got to go get milk,’ he’d say, ‘I’ll pick you up and go with you.’ ”

As for critics’ claims that he’s more interested in money than in the woes of the elderly, Wilkes says he has never considered himself “a great humanitarian.” But, he adds, “I have changed the way nursing homes function. With long-term care, I saw from the beginning that there was a chance to do something that makes a difference.”

Nick Charles

Don Sider in Tampa

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