Santa Rosa senior home lawsuit poised to be first trial from October fires

It what looks to be the first trial stemming from the October fires, senior residents of a destroyed Fountaingrove facility will press their case that they were abandoned by staff as flames closed in.|

The first trial stemming from the October fires - a lawsuit claiming seniors were abandoned by staff at their Fountaingrove residential facility as flames approached - was set Tuesday by a Sonoma County judge for Aug. 3.

Plaintiffs suing the companies that own and manage Oakmont of Villa Capri include seniors in their 80s and 90s, and three have died since fleeing the fire, said their attorney, Kathryn Stebner. She told Judge Pat Broderick in a court hearing that she planned to file a motion for an expedited date because of the advanced ages of her clients.

Broderick said he didn’t need a motion to convince him to set it sooner than the end of this year.

“I am inclined without further motion to set this earlier on,” Broderick told Stebner and Alex Giovanniello, the Southern California attorney representing Villa Capri owner Oakmont Senior Living and its affiliates in the case.

The date is just 10 months after the Oct. 8 firestorm, when several wildland infernos consumed large swaths of rural and urban Sonoma County, burning almost 5,300 homes and killing 24 people. Villa Capri, an upscale assisted living and memory care facility in Fountaingrove, was destroyed by the Tubbs fire.

“The judge considers this as a very important issue that needs to be heard by Sonoma County juries,” Stebner, a San Francisco attorney representing the residents and family members in the suit, said after the hearing. “I’m pleased we have an expedited trial.”

Giovanniello, who joined the hearing by phone, had asked for a later date, citing trial conflicts. The judge said the date would be reviewed as time approached but that it would receive preference over other cases. A preference motion is often granted for cases involving children or seniors with health issues.

The suit is against parent company Oakmont Senior Living, as well as Oakmont Management Group and Oakmont of Varenna, doing business as Villa Capri. Oakmont Senior Living was founded in 1997 by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher. Two phone messages and an email to an Oakmont company spokeswoman, as well as requests to speak to Gallaher, were not returned Tuesday. A phone message left for Giovanniello also was not returned Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed in November, with 13 residents and family members as plaintiffs claiming Villa Capri employees abandoned at least a third of the nearly 70 residents as flames neared the facility in the early hours of ?Oct. 9. A few dozen residents, many of whom used walkers and wheelchairs, were helped to safety by a handful of family members before Villa Capri burned to the ground.

After the fire, company officials said public safety agencies prevented staff from returning up the hill to evacuate remaining residents. A legal response filed Feb. 20 by Giovanniello for the company denied all allegations in the suit. The response blamed residents and the family members who helped them, saying they bear responsibility for any harm suffered in evacuating as a result of not taking “proper care and precautions which a reasonable prudent person under the same or similar circumstances would have exercised.”

Two residents survived the fire but died in December - one woman, blind and suffering from dementia, broke her hip in a fall at an evacuation shelter; another died of cancer but said she suffered extreme emotional distress as a result of her escape. A third resident, 89, who suffered from dementia and used a wheelchair, died this month.

The plaintiffs’ suit seeks damages for alleged elder abuse, negligence, false imprisonment, emotional distress and wrongful death. It has been amended to include allegations that at least 80 residents of the neighboring facility - Oakmont of Varenna, also owned by Oakmont Senior Living - were left behind by staff as the fire approached. That building didn’t burn.

The state Department of Social Services, which licenses senior living facilities, is conducting an investigation of the evacuations at both Villa Capri and Oakmont of Varenna.

Stebner filed a second suit in February against the Oakmont group for a Varenna resident, who claimed employees “made no effort to ensure she did not die alone in her apartment during the fire,” according to the suit.

Stebner said she expects to amend the Villa Capri lawsuit early next month with additional plaintiffs.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or

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