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, oakmontseniorlivingstory.com.
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.