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Oakmont Senior Living to pay $500,000 to settle state, county investigation into abandonment of seniors during 2017 wildfires

The operator of two elder care homes in Santa Rosa where about 100 frail residents were abandoned during the October 2017 firestorm has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle an unlawful business practices lawsuit filed by state and local prosecutors.

Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living and two related companies that own or operate Varenna and Villa Capri were accused of leaving residents behind during the wildfires “with no means to evacuate themselves,” according to a civil complaint filed last year by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Prosecutors also accused the companies of failing to prepare staff to evacuate residents during emergencies and not notifying relatives about the status of their loved ones during the fires.

The settlement includes an injunction requiring the three companies to create an enhanced disaster and evacuation plan and “ensure that all administrators and staff have sufficient training and familiarity with all aspects of the plan to ensure its timely and effective deployment,” according to the agreement approved Thursday by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gary Nadler. The company must hire an independent monitor to make sure the company complies with court-ordered requirements for five years.

The plight of those frail residents during the height of the Tubbs’ fire outraged their families, triggered state investigations into the actions of the companies and their staffs, and spurred legislation. Many residents had limited mobility or cognitive issues, including dementia, that made them particularly dependent on staff at the care homes.

“It’s an acknowledgment that people were put in harm’s way,” Ravitch said of the agreement. “Fortunately, nobody died and no one was seriously injured. Oakmont is taking responsibility to ensure these facilities will do a better job to be ready in the future.”

Oakmont Management Group agreed to pay settlement fees of $205,000 each to Sonoma County and the state, as well as $45,000 to both the District Attorney and Attorney General’s office to cover investigative costs, company spokesman Nathan Ballard said.

The company settled the case to avoid “years of litigation over this long-past dispute,” Ballard said in an email statement.

“This settlement will also protect our team members from the threat of unwarranted criminal prosecution arising from any conduct occurring before or during the fire,” he said. “We are confident that we would have prevailed should this matter have proceeded further, but for the sake of our team members, residents and stakeholders in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are pleased to lay this matter to rest.”

The resolution brought no sense of justice for Beth Eurotas-Steffy, whose mother Alice Eurotas endured a harrowing experience watching fire encroach upon her home at Villa Capri in 2017. She was 84 and walked only with great difficulty at the time. She was among those eventually rescued by good Samaritans who rushed to the facility as the fire burned.

“The only words that come to mind are ’extreme disappointment,’” Eurotas-Steffy said. “I’m disappointed not for me but the victims there that night and left to die.”

Dozens of residents living in the Fountaingrove care facilities, where Oakmont offers a range of services from independent living to full-time nursing care, were able to evacuate themselves. But about 100 were not, including those at Villa Capri’s memory care unit for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. They were ultimately rescued by relatives and emergency responders who discovered they were left behind.

The Tubbs fire destroyed Villa Capri and damaged Varenna, both located in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood.

Eurotas-Steffy said she was grateful the District Attorney’s Office investigated the companies, but she believes the resolution and financial penalty would do little to force the companies to protect their residents in the future.

Eurotas-Steffy said she believes the impact of that night in 2017 on the health and well-being of her mother and others has never been accounted for. Her mother, now 87, had a stroke after her rescue in 2017. She is paralyzed from the waist down and “despondent,” according to her daughter.

“When I look at the amount of money, to that company, I’m thinking it’s sort of like pocket change,” Eurotas-Steffy said. “That night shortened their lives. The fear, the stress, the anxiety they would not be able to escape a burning building — that affected them all so much.”

The agreement comes nearly two years after operators of Villa Capri and Varenna first admitted publicly their staff abandoned residents during the 2017 fires. The acknowledgment came in an agreement with state regulators that put the facilities and its managers on probation, which has since been satisfied.

In 2018, Oakmont settled a civil lawsuit filed by families of residents stranded at the facility, including Eurotas-Steffy. The terms were confidential.

Ravitch had repeatedly declined to reveal whether her agency was investigating the abandonment of Villa Capri and Varenna residents during the fires. She said in an interview Thursday that she first looked to other agencies, including the Santa Rosa Police and Fire departments, to launch an inquiry into the companies’ actions that night.

When it became clear no agency had launched a criminal investigation, her environmental and consumer law division began an investigation in November 2018. At the start, prosecutors were examining the case for evidence of criminal elder abuse or unlawful business practices, handled in civil court.

They ultimately concluded the companies and their management were responsible for the abandonment of residents that night in 2017, but found no evidence of criminal conduct on the part of staff, Ravitch said. The settlement names three companies — Oakmont Senior Living LLC, Oakmont Management Group LLC and Varenna LLC — that own and operate Varenna and Villa Capri.

Ravitch said she hoped this would signal other residential facilities serving the elderly the urgent need to be prepared to care for vulnerable clients during a disaster.

“It’s not a matter of if but it’s a matter of when we face something tragic like we did back then,” Ravitch said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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