4 residents sue Oakmont Senior Living, alleging they were abandoned during wildfires

The suit claims the seniors were abandoned by staff and escaped only because of the help of other residents’ families.|

Four residents of the Oakmont of Villa Capri senior living facility in Santa Rosa filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that staff abandoned at least a third of the nearly 70 residents under their care during the deadly firestorms that raged through Sonoma County last month.

The seniors escaped only because the families of two of the women 'made herculean efforts to ensure that all of the residents they could find got out of the building,' according to the suit.

Villa Capri was destroyed in the Tubbs fire, which broke out the night of Oct. 8 and leveled more than 4,600 homes. The facility is operated by Oakmont Senior Living, founded by developer Bill Gallaher, and managed by Oakmont Management Group. The two companies, along with Villa Capri, are listed as defendants in the suit.

Oakmont Management Group officials and attorneys did not respond to telephone calls and emails requesting comment Monday afternoon. In a statement last month when similar allegations first surfaced, the company said public safety agencies prevented staff from returning to the building to evacuate remaining residents during the fires.

The state Department of Social Services has already launched a formal investigation of the evacuations from Villa Capri and the adjoining Varenna complex. The agency is also reviewing the evacuations of all licensed care facilities whose residents were displaced by the wildfires. The investigation was still ongoing Monday, said department spokesman Michael Weston.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Sonoma County Superior Court, revealed new allegations about the chaos that unfolded as flames approached the Fountaingrove Parkway complex and families sought to rescue their elderly parents inside.

It alleges Oakmont staff abandoned plaintiffs Elizabeth Budow, Alice Eurotas, Virginia Gunn and Helen Allen during the fire, as well as 'other residents in wheelchairs, and other residents with dementia who were physically and cognitively incapable of escaping a burning building without assistance.'

'I have been doing elder abuse cases since 1987,' said Kathryn Stebner, an attorney for the four women. 'This is one of the worst cases of its kind.'

The lawsuit alleges only three staff members were working at Villa Capri the night of the fire to care for more than 70 elderly and disabled residents, including 'a few dozen' with dementia in a locked unit.

The building began to fill with smoke around 12:30 a.m., but staff turned off fire alarms and did not wake residents to collect their belongings or begin to evacuate, according to the lawsuit.

Most residents were still in their beds at 2 a.m. when Allen's son, Mark Allen, and his wife, Kathy, arrived to check on her, according to the suit. 'The facility had no power and there were no back-up generators in use, nobody had access keys to the Oakmont vans parked at the Facility which could have been used to evacuate the residents, and nobody was in contact with the Executive Director of the Facility during this emergency,' the suit said.

Using the light from their cellphones, Allen and his wife began to awaken the residents and bring them to the lobby. They were soon joined by Gunn's daughter, Melissa Lenghals, who came to check on her.

A bus and a van from another Oakmont facility arrived around 3 a.m. but could not hold everyone, leaving 'at least a few dozen' residents behind, according to the suit. Allen drove his mother and six other residents down the hill, while a staff member took several others in her Jeep, the suit said.

Lenghals and Kathy Allen were left alone to evacuate approximately 24 seniors remaining at the facility, including 14 in the dementia care unit, according to the suit. When they found the front door of the facility locked, Lenghals used the car hitch on her vehicle to break into the front door and prop it open, the lawsuit said.

'The building was filled with smoke, yet they worked to carry approximately ten residents in wheelchairs from the second floor to the foyer of the Facility,' the suit said.

The two women used Villa Capri's radios to repeatedly call for help, but received no response, according to the suit.

At 4 a.m., four police cars arrived to transport three residents, including Eurotas and Gunn, the suit reads. Lenghals transported five residents in her car, while at 4:30 a.m. a city bus arrived and took Kathy Allen and seven residents in wheelchairs to safety.

The suit notes that Budow, a 92-year-old woman who is blind, and has dementia and hearing impairments, was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital suffering from a broken hip, broken tooth, an open wound on her heel and abrasions all over her body. Budow's family does not know who brought her to the hospital, Stebner said in an interview. The suit notes that no one from Villa Capri contacted Budow's family to say she had been safely evacuated.

Budow has since been transferred to a hospice facility and is expected to die in the near future, according the suit.

Oakmont, in a company statement issued last month in response to the state probe, said its staff was prevented by authorities from evacuating all of its residents during the fires.

'While our staff was in the process of shuttling our residents to safety, emergency authorities at several entry locations refused to let multiple staff members re-enter,' Crystal Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for subsidiary Oakmont Management Group, wrote in an Oct. 16 email. 'A District Director at another nearby senior living facility informed us that he came across the same roadblocks and was refused entry to the area.'

The company's statement contends that authorities indicated they would evacuate the remaining residents and that Oakmont was 'aware that at least one city bus was en route to our community for that purpose.' Robinson added that staff members stayed in contact with authorities and an Oakmont Senior Living executive staff member who was on location evacuated the final residents.

In an interview, Stebner disputed that Oakmont staff were stopped by roadblocks, noting that her own family members were in evacuation zones that night and moved freely from the hours of 2 to 5 a.m.

The suit also alleges the plaintiffs were 'promised' by Villa Capri officials that they would search the destroyed facility for residents' personal property. Instead, Santa Rosa police had to stop workers from demolishing the facility and removing rubble before it had been searched for bodies, possessions and toxic materials.

City and county officials said Oakmont Senior Living did not have the proper permits to demolish the 63-unit memory care facility and remove the debris while search teams were still scouring the hilltop neighborhood for bodies.

The lawsuit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, seeks undisclosed damages for alleged elder abuse, negligence, false imprisonment, and both false and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Stebner said she expects more seniors to join the suit.

In September, she sued Oakmont Senior Living in Alameda County Superior Court, representing four seniors who alleged the company was depriving them of needed care and exposing them to risk of injury. Those four seniors were different from the four women who filed suit Monday.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.