Lawsuit over fire evacuation alleges Oakmont Senior Living offered employees money for silence

The allegation is contained in an updated suit involving Villa Capri, a Santa Rosa memory care facility operated by Oakmont Senior Living.|

Oakmont Senior Living officials attempted to silence employees of a Santa Rosa care home sued by residents’ families after it was destroyed in the October wildfires by offering them $750 to $1,500 to say they were unaware the company broke any laws, according to new court filings obtained Friday.

An amended suit on behalf of eight former Oakmont of Villa Capri residents who claim they were abandoned during the fires points to a Dec. 8 letter from Karen Ellis, vice president of human resources for the company’s management group, offering money to employees who lost their jobs when the memory care facility burned down.

In exchange for the payment, employees of the facility were asked to sign the bottom of the letter, stating they did not know of any violation of local, state or federal law, according to the lawsuit. If they later discovered a violation, they were asked to report it to the company. Also, the employees were required to waive any legal claims against Oakmont arising from their tenures.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Kathryn Stebner called the letter “unusual.” She said she received it from two unnamed employees following her November announcement that she was suing the company.

“I would say it’s unfair,” Stebner said Friday, referencing the letter described in the complaint. “It’s unfair to expect a maintenance worker or caregiver to know what the laws are that would have been violated. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

The letter itself is not contained in the court filing. Another attorney in Stebner’s firm, Kelly Knapp, confirmed the ?Dec. 8 letter is the same document cited in the suit.

Neither Ellis nor an Oakmont spokeswoman, Crystal Robinson, responded to requests for comment Friday.

“We offer this payment to (you) as a good faith gesture to ease your transition in finding alternative employment,” the letter said.

The facility is operated by parent company Oakmont Senior Living, founded in 1997 by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher and managed by Oakmont Management Group.

The two companies, along with Villa Capri, are listed as defendants in the suit alleging Villa Capri officials abandoned at least a third of the nearly 70 residents as the Tubbs fire roared into Santa Rosa on Oct. 9. The plaintiffs claim they managed to escape with the help of relatives before the Fountain Grove Parkway facility was destroyed.

Among the claims are elder abuse, negligence, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The letter came to light as Stebner added two wrongful death allegations to the suit. Two residents - Elizabeth Budow, 92, and Virginia Gunn, 82 - died two months after the fire. Budow, who was blind and suffered dementia, broke a hip in a fall at an evacuation shelter and died Dec. 11.

Gunn, who was bedridden with colon cancer, suffered extreme emotional distress from her ordeal and died Dec. 18, Stebner said.

She said trauma from their escape from the second floor hastened their deaths. The evacuation is under state investigation.

The amended suit also adds a disability discrimination claim. Because of a power failure, residents in wheelchairs and walkers were unable to use an elevator.

“They were pulling people down the stairwell,” Stebner said. “They couldn’t walk.”

The lawsuit claims the facility had no backup generator to keep the elevator going.

Demolition and debris removal on the site began eight days later in a locked-down fire zone and amid ruins that had not been searched for bodies, according to authorities. It occurred without the necessary clearance from the city, said officials with the Santa Rosa Fire Department and Sonoma County Department of Health Services, which launched an inquiry into the debris removal.

“It was done within days,” Stebner said. “We’re kind of wondering why that happened.”

Oakmont Senior Living officials have said the company plans to rebuild the facility. The company operates more than ?20 senior living facilities in California from Redding to San Diego, including four in Fountaingrove before the fire.

Gallaher, who lost his own home in the fire, has not responded to numerous requests for comment about the lawsuit or the state investigation into Villa Capri’s evacuation.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or ?On Twitter @ppayne.

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