Settlement reached on eve of trial over evacuations at Villa Capri senior care facility during October wildfires

A lawsuit alleging residents of a Santa Rosa senior care home were abandoned shortly before the Tubbs fire burned the facility to the ground will be settled, attorneys said Friday, averting what would have been the first trial stemming from the October wildfires.

The tentative agreement was announced at a Sonoma County Superior Court hearing by an attorney for 17 elderly residents and family members of people who lived at Villa Capri, the destroyed Fountaingrove care home owned by Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living.

Attorneys were scheduled to begin pretrial motions Friday, with jury selection likely starting next week, said Kathryn Stebner, whose San Francisco law firm is representing Villa Capri residents and their families.

Terms of the settlement, including financial payouts, are confidential, Stebner said.

Oakmont Senior Living has tentatively agreed to implement “additional measures which will benefit the residents in all Northern California Oakmont communities,” Stebner said in a statement. She declined to elaborate on those measures, but said they are “of great importance to my clients.”

Attorneys resolved the case Thursday night and were “still working out the details,” Stebner said Friday during a hearing before Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick.

Oakmont Senior Living attorneys Sean Cowdrey and Alexander Giovanniello also told Broderick they have agreed to settle and are still finalizing the terms. Outside the courtroom, Giovanniello and Cowdrey declined to comment on the case.

“It is confidential,” Giovanniello said. A spokeswoman for Oakmont Senior Living didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday.

Broderick ordered the attorneys to return to court Sept. 11 with a draft settlement agreement signed by all parties involved in the case.

Attorneys on both sides had planned to call 154 witnesses during the trial, including former residents, family members, staff, police and industry experts. Court proceedings were expected to last six to eight weeks, Stebner said.

In an interview Friday morning, Penngrove resident Tim Callen said he’s glad his 93-year-old mother Ruth, one of the plaintiffs, will avoid having to endure a lengthy jury trial.

“It would have been really tough on her,” Callen said. “I’m just glad it’s over for mom.”

Taking it to court

In court filings and interviews, plaintiffs and their lawyer had argued staff at the 72-bed seniors’ home weren’t prepared to get all residents to safety as the wind-whipped firestorm raced into Santa Rosa late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9.

At least two dozen seniors were left behind, the lawsuit contended. While all survived that night, the lawsuit alleged the lack of adequate planning hastened the deaths of three Villa Capri residents because of to the trauma they endured during the evacuation.

The facility had no backup generator, leaving residents, some with dementia, to evacuate in the dark when power was cut to the lights and elevator, the lawsuit said. Elderly residents in wheelchairs and others who couldn’t walk unaided had to be led down the staircase by the family members or navigate the descent on their own during the harrowing evacuation, the suit said.

Oakmont Senior Living and its legal team steadfastly denied all allegations of wrongdoing raised by the suit. The company said it did everything the law required it to do, and had both training and staffing that complied or exceeded regulatory standards. Its staff made valiant attempts to evacuate residents during the chaotic early hours of an unprecedented disaster, the company said on a website created to provide its account of the evacuations.

“Our heroic employees kept our residents out of harm’s way,” the company stated. “Many of our Oakmont residents and families, alongside first responders, worked hard to alert their neighbors and ensure they were also brought to safety.”

Oakmont officials would not make themselves available for interviews to discuss the case earlier this week.

Crystal Robinson, a spokeswoman for Oakmont’s management company, responded to interview requests from The Press Democrat this week with a statement that referred back to the company website,

The website was created to offer a “detailed account of the initial and ongoing actions the company took to proactively support its residents and ensure their safety in the days and weeks following the fire,” the statement said.

Villa Capri was managed by Oakmont Management Group and developed by Oakmont Senior Living, founded in 1997 by Santa Rosa developer Bill Gallaher. The lawsuit named Villa Capri and the two companies.

Requests to speak with Gallaher directly this week were unsuccessful. He had been on the witness list and was expected to testify during the trial, Stebner said.

One of the lawsuit’s main allegations was that Villa Capri staff were gone from the facility while about 24 residents, many in wheelchairs and walkers, remained behind. They were evacuated by family members who flagged down Santa Rosa police officers to help, the suit said.

The suit described how four family members, who rushed to the facility to get loved ones, stayed to lead the evacuation after realizing staff were confused about what to do and didn’t know of an evacuation plan. But on its website, Oakmont calls it a “team effort” led by staff with aid from family members.

“It may have been a team effort somewhat in the beginning,” Stebner said in an interview before the settlement was reached. “But their team left the field in the end of the game.”

In the company’s telling, four Villa Capri staff members on duty were joined by three others who were able to get to the facility. Those seven workers did what they could to evacuate residents during the fast-moving firestorm, with help from family members that was “greatly appreciated,” the site says.

A few employees drove residents off the hill in their own cars and a company van and then tried to return for more but were kept away by “local authorities” as a result of the dangerous situation, according to Oakmont.

Company officials said additional staff members who tried to reach Villa Capri were “turned away at multiple entry sites” - a point Stebner disputed, saying several others, including staff and family members, made it up the hill at various times during the night. Statements from police officers in depositions indicated there were no official roadblocks during the night, she said.

The Oakmont website further claims staff helped family members get the final Villa Capri residents off the property, which Stebner dismissed as “absolutely untrue.”

“At the very least, the last 24 people were abandoned. They were alone there with just two family members,” the attorney said.

“They did try to get some of the people out,” earlier in the event, Stebner said. “Two (workers) took people in their cars, I think to their credit.”

But statements from four family members there that night show the workers “were in over their heads,” Stebner said.

“They didn’t know what to do,” she said. “There were not enough people there.”

On the night of Oct. 8, Villa Capri’s more than ?60 residents were cared for by four women on the graveyard shift, according to Stebner. The most senior employee was hired in December 2016 - less than a year before the fires - and the remaining three had just a few months’ experience, Stebner said.

The company also said training for evacuations and staffing levels were compliant with or exceeded regulatory requirements. Staff didn’t abandon anyone and ensured all residents were accounted for, according to the website.

Allegations over death

Another pivotal part of the lawsuit centered on wrongful death allegations involving three residents who died after the fires and evacuation.

One of those was Elizabeth Budow, a 92-year-old woman who’d been blind, deaf and suffered from dementia, according to the suit.

The company’s site says Budow wasn’t injured during the evacuation itself but “apparently slipped out of her chair” while she was at an evacuation site.

Stebner said she didn’t contest Budow’s injuries, mainly a broken hip, occurred while she was at the shelter. The bedridden woman hadn’t sat up in months, and at the shelter she was placed on a chair and left unaccompanied, she said.

“They put her in a room with a lot of people, in a chair. She was not watched, fell over and broke her hip,” Stebner said. “The injury was at an evacuation place, and she was under the control of Oakmont.”

In Stebner’s view, the injury is an example of the company’s lack of a plan for how to evacuate individual residents with disabilities. During pre-trial discovery, the company admitted it didn’t have a generator at the facility to provide power during a blackout, Stebner said.

In a Q&A posted on its website, the company did not directly answer the question it posed about whether there were backup generators at Villa Capri that would have allowed residents to use elevators the night of the fires. “It would be extremely dangerous and contrary to all safety precautions to take the elevator during an active fire,” the company stated.

A legal filing by the company said plaintiffs didn’t take “adequate precautions” that could have prevented the trauma they said they experienced while evacuating Villa Capri. On its website, the company sought to clarify its position, stating that it has not blamed residents “for the fire or associated losses.” Instead, the company said its legal filing raised all potential affirmative defenses to prevent them from being waived by the court.

Another part of Oakmont’s firestorm website includes numerous testimonials of gratitude from people whose family members were evacuated from the company’s facilities in October. One of the testimonials, for example, came from someone identified only as “DM,” whose parents lived at Villa Capri.

“The action of the Villa Capri staff during this fire was heroic and we are grateful for all that they did to save lives during this terrible event,” the statement said.

Elsewhere on the website, the company says it is grateful “there were no fatalities from the evacuation of residents from Oakmont Senior Living and other assisted living communities” - a point the lawsuit contests. The website quotes a statement made during the fires by Scott Alonso, then a Sonoma County spokesman, to the Los Angeles Times, in which he referenced the difficulties seniors face evacuating during an emergency.

Alonso, who no longer works for the county, was dismayed to see his name invoked by Oakmont in that context. In an interview, he stressed his comments had nothing to do with the evacuation of Varenna and Villa Capri - he was speaking days after the initial firestorm about how many of the victims were seniors.

“The county would have never commented on a private business and their initial evacuation,” Alonso said in an interview prior to the settlement. “It’s just frustrating that they’re trying to use these comments in a political way to benefit them and muddy the waters.”

State investigation

Separate from the civil lawsuit, the evacuation of Villa Capri and two other Oakmont senior homes in the area - Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge - are being investigated by the state Department of Social Services.

The Oakmont website says the department must investigate complaints “regardless of merit” and says the state hasn’t yet identified any wrongdoing on the company’s part.

All three facilities remain under investigation, according to department spokesman Michael Weston. He couldn’t say when the work would be done and declined to share details about their status, though he said “there’s been extensive work” done by his department.

Investigation timelines vary widely depending on their complexity, including the location and number of witnesses and whether the case involves local governments or law enforcement agencies, Weston said.

If found to have committed wrongdoing, the most severe action the company could face from the state agency would be losing its licenses to operate an assisted living facility, he said.

The Villa Capri lawsuit settlement will have no bearing on the department’s investigation, Weston said.

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