Attorney: Santa Rosa senior home destroyed in fire had no backup generator to aid evacuees
A Fountaingrove senior care home had no backup generator the night an October fire raced into Santa Rosa and cut off electricity to the complex, leaving dozens of infirm residents to evacuate in darkness without an elevator before it burned to the ground, according to an attorney suing the company.
Oakmont Senior Living, which operated Villa Capri, revealed the absence of a generator in pretrial discovery responses, said San Francisco attorney Kathryn Stebner, who represents 17 residents and family members accusing the company and its affiliates of negligence and abandonment of residents that night.
Oakmont officials also conceded Villa Capri residents didn't participate in fire drills conducted by the facility's staff, Stebner said.
'Without a generator or real drills, how were residents with wheelchairs and walkers supposed to safely get off the second floor in an emergency? This situation both shocks me and makes me sad to think of what these residents went through,' Stebner said.
Company officials and an attorney didn't respond to multiple requests for comment last week.
The revelations emerged this month as two Sonoma County judges ruled against motions by Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living, which was seeking to add PG&E to the case and postpone residents' attorneys from interviewing top company officials, according to court documents.
The lawsuit alleges Villa Capri staff abandoned at least a third of the roughly 70 residents, including some who were bedridden and living with dementia, in the earliest hours of wildfires that erupted late Oct. 8 and that the company failed to take adequate measures in advance to prepare for a disaster.
Suit alleges elder abuse
The suit, 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.
While state health and safety codes do not require senior care facilities to have backup generators, such facilities must have a plan to be 'self‑reliant for a period of not less than 72 hours immediately following any emergency or disaster.'
Oakmont officials have said the facility had an evacuation plan, Stebner said, but she contends the company's emergency planning was deficient, saying it didn't include how to safely evacuate people with disabilities. Employees on duty that night have said they didn't know what the plan was, she said.
Stebner said a generator would have averted some of the most harrowing moments during the blackout, which plunged the care facility into darkness about 11:30 p.m. as flames took out the surrounding area's electrical network.
With no working elevator, some seniors who used walkers were forced to make their own way down the stairs, according to the lawsuit. One 92‑year‑old man allegedly rolled himself down. Others were backed down in their wheelchairs or walked down by family members who came to check on residents and helped evacuate dozens, the lawsuit states.
Fire drills for residents could have also helped residents prepare for the chaos that unfolded during the wildfires, Stebner said.
A company handbook given to residents at the assisted living and memory care facility stated residents would be encouraged to participate in monthly fire drills, according to a copy on file with the state Department of Social Services, which licenses such senior facilities.
'Participation and practice regarding proper responses to the drill as set forth in the fire evacuation plan could be lifesaving in the unlikely event of an emergency,' the handbooks stated.
The lawsuit alleges that residents were instructed in the event of a fire to 'shelter in place' and wait for someone to come for them.
The state Department of Social Services is investigating the evacuations at Villa Capri and two other Oakmont Senior Living facilities in Fountaingrove — Oakmont of Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge — that survived the wildfires. While the state is reviewing evacuations at all licensed care facilities during the fires, the Villa Capri case is a formal investigation, according to a department official. The investigation is still ongoing, the official said last week.
Allegations over evacuation
The residents' lawsuit is set for trial Aug. 3, and involves dozens of allegations, mainly involving the evacuation of Villa Capri residents in the early hours of the Tubbs fire as flames closed in.
The company in February filed a court document denying the plaintiffs' allegations and suggested former residents suing the company bear responsibility for not taking 'adequate precautions' that could have prevented the trauma they say they experienced.