Emeritus at Santa Rosa nursing home to pay $1 million in settlement

Emeritus at Santa Rosa, renamed Brookdale Fountaingrove, agreed to the payout in the 2013 death of Eleanor Buckingham, 87, who died of sepsis.|

A high-end Santa Rosa nursing home has agreed to pay $1 million to settle a wrongful death and elder abuse lawsuit alleging it allowed a patient to die from complications of a bedsore, attorneys said Tuesday.

Emeritus at Santa Rosa, since renamed Brookdale Fountaingrove, agreed to the payout in the 2013 death of Eleanor Buckingham, 87.

Her family alleged nursing staff erred in treating a pressure ulcer that developed on her back, withholding proper care until it became infected.

She died of sepsis after being taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, said attorneys Jeremy Fietz and Sandy Horowitz.

They said the case shows even the most expensive nursing facilities make mistakes. Emeritus charged patients about $100,000 a year to stay in the Fountaingrove Parkway facility, the attorneys said.

“I think it’s really important that people watch very carefully, no matter what nursing home their loved one gets into,” Fietz said.

Sue Becker, nursing home administrator and executive director, did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment. She was named in the suit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, along with Jennifer Abramson, the former director of nursing. A spokeswoman for the Tennessee-based company, Shawna Zody, did not comment.

Brookdale bought Emeritus Corporation in 2014 for a reported $1.4 billion in stock. The company owns at least three other facilities in Sonoma County.

The company released a statement Tuesday saying it has made unspecified changes since the merger, and highlighting that the lawsuit concerned events that predated the merger.

“While there were defenses to the allegations, we ultimately decided to resolve this case to put our focus on what matters most, the health and well-being of our residents,” said the statement from spokeswoman Shawna Zody.

A Bay Area watchdog said the $1 million settlement is significant since damages for simple negligence are capped at $250,000 under state law.

“A million dollars is a statement,” said Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “It says, we did something wrong.”

She said her group receives frequent complaints about corporate-owned nursing homes, including those operated by Seattle-based Emeritus and Brookdale.

“They are large, for-profit chains trying to provide healthcare,” she said. “I’m not sure they are capable of doing it.”

Buckingham, a San Francisco native who served as a civilian airplane spotter during World War II, moved to Santa Rosa with her late husband, Warren, in the 1950s. She raised two children and eventually became a pilot herself, joining the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for female fliers.

After suffering a bout of cellulitis about four years ago, she was admitted to Emeritus in November 2012 for rehabilitation with plans to return to live with her daughter in Windsor, her attorneys said.

Emeritus staff noticed the bed sore on her back at admission but did not take immediate action to treat it, the lawyers said. Instead, they allowed the wound to double in size and held her at the facility until Jan. 15 - the last day covered by Medicare, Fietz and Horowitz said.

At that point, Emeritus downgraded her treatment from skilled nursing to assisted living, the lawyers said.

It wasn’t until a specialist examined her four days later that Buckingham was sent to Memorial Hospital with a serious infection on her back, Fietz and Horowitz said. She died of sepsis eight days later.

Her family alleged the nursing home cut corners by employing people without proper training. It also let profits dictate its treatment decisions, they said.

The settlement came on the eve of trial, set for March 4.

The attorneys said the fact the damages exceeded the $250,000 cap is equal to a jury finding Emeritus committed elder abuse. Also, they said the company agreed to waive the usual confidentiality clause - another acknowledgment of blame.

“Being able to talk about this is very rare in the nursing home setting,” Fietz said. “They don’t want you to know about these things.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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