Attorney: Santa Rosa senior home destroyed in fire had no backup generator to aid evacuees

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Read more of the PD’s fire and rebuild coverage here

A Fountaingrove senior care home had no backup generator the night an October fire raced into Santa Rosa and cut off electricity to the complex, leaving dozens of infirm residents to evacuate in darkness without an elevator before it burned to the ground, according to an attorney suing the company.

Oakmont Senior Living, which operated Villa Capri, revealed the absence of a generator in pretrial discovery responses, said San Francisco attorney Kathryn Stebner, who represents 17 residents and family members accusing the company and its affiliates of negligence and abandonment of residents that night.

Oakmont officials also conceded Villa Capri residents didn’t participate in fire drills conducted by the facility’s staff, Stebner said.

“Without a generator or real drills, how were residents with wheelchairs and walkers supposed to safely get off the second floor in an emergency? This situation both shocks me and makes me sad to think of what these residents went through,” Stebner said.

Company officials and an attorney didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment last week.

The revelations emerged this month as two Sonoma County judges ruled against motions by Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living, which was seeking to add PG&E to the case and postpone residents’ attorneys from interviewing top company officials, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleges Villa Capri staff abandoned at least a third of the roughly 70 residents, including some who were bedridden and living with dementia, in the earliest hours of wildfires that erupted late Oct. 8 and that the company failed to take adequate measures in advance to prepare for a disaster.

Suit alleges elder abuse

The suit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, seeks undisclosed damages for alleged elder abuse, negligence, false imprisonment and both false and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

While state health and safety codes do not require senior care facilities to have backup generators, such facilities must have a plan to be “self‑reliant for a period of not less than 72 hours immediately following any emergency or disaster.”

Oakmont officials have said the facility had an evacuation plan, Stebner said, but she contends the company’s emergency planning was deficient, saying it didn’t include how to safely evacuate people with disabilities. Employees on duty that night have said they didn’t know what the plan was, she said.

Stebner said a generator would have averted some of the most harrowing moments during the blackout, which plunged the care facility into darkness about 11:30 p.m. as flames took out the surrounding area’s electrical network.

With no working elevator, some seniors who used walkers were forced to make their own way down the stairs, according to the lawsuit. One 92‑year‑old man allegedly rolled himself down. Others were backed down in their wheelchairs or walked down by family members who came to check on residents and helped evacuate dozens, the lawsuit states.

Fire drills for residents could have also helped residents prepare for the chaos that unfolded during the wildfires, Stebner said.

A company handbook given to residents at the assisted living and memory care facility stated residents would be encouraged to participate in monthly fire drills, according to a copy on file with the state Department of Social Services, which licenses such senior facilities.

“Participation and practice regarding proper responses to the drill as set forth in the fire evacuation plan could be lifesaving in the unlikely event of an emergency,” the handbooks stated.

Read more of the PD’s fire and rebuild coverage here

The lawsuit alleges that residents were instructed in the event of a fire to ‘shelter in place’ and wait for someone to come for them.

The state Department of Social Services is investigating the evacuations at Villa Capri and two other Oakmont Senior Living facilities in Fountaingrove — Oakmont of Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge — that survived the wildfires. While the state is reviewing evacuations at all licensed care facilities during the fires, the Villa Capri case is a formal investigation, according to a department official. The investigation is still ongoing, the official said last week.

Allegations over evacuation

The residents’ lawsuit is set for trial Aug. 3, and involves dozens of allegations, mainly involving the evacuation of Villa Capri residents in the early hours of the Tubbs fire as flames closed in.

The company in February filed a court document denying the plaintiffs’ allegations and suggested former residents suing the company bear responsibility for not taking “adequate precautions” that could have prevented the trauma they say they experienced.

All Villa Capri residents got out of the facility before it was overtaken by flames.

The lawsuit contends most of the residents were still in bed when four family members came to check on loved ones during the fire. It alleges the three staff on duty at Villa Capri were waiting for a company official to arrive before taking further action. But that official never arrived, according to the lawsuit. Instead, relatives of residents took charge, leading the evacuation of dozens, getting them out of their rooms and to a main lobby, according to the suit.

After that, four Santa Rosa police officers and a city bus arrived by about 4:30 a.m. Aided by two family members who had stayed, they evacuated the remaining two dozen residents as fire closed in on the facility, according to the suit. A lone staff member, a woman named Marie, drove evacuees from the facility; the other staff members were gone by 3:30 a.m., according to the lawsuit.

Oakmont Senior Living subsequently issued a statement saying efforts to reach the facility were halted by roadblocks and first responders but that company officials had been assured emergency workers and a city bus would get the residents out.

The trial is the first stemming from the fast‑moving October fires that in Sonoma County destroyed nearly 5,300 homes and killed 24 people. None of the victims were Villa Capri residents.

Three elderly plaintiffs have died since the fire, according to Stebner.

Trial expedited

Sonoma County Judge Patrick Broderick ordered the trial be fast-tracked because of the age and health of residents suing Villa Capri.

Earlier this month, Broderick fined the company $8,750 for failing to cooperate with residents’ attorneys seeking to depose officials at Oakmont Senior Living and its affiliates.

Paul Kang, an attorney for Oakmont Senior Living, argued against the sanction, saying the company was providing employees as best it could with the expedited trial timing and dozens of people requested for questioning, according to a court transcript of the June 8 hearing.

The judge also rejected the company’s argument that it was premature to depose two top officials, including owner Bill Gallaher, until lower level employees are questioned. Gallaher, a Sonoma County developer, founded Oakmont Senior Living in 1997.

“I will say that the defendants’ argument is not well taken that these are busy people,” Broderick told Kang, according to the transcript. “I don’t accept that argument. In fact, I’m concerned about that argument. Whether they’re busy or not is not a legal basis to prevent their depositions from being taken.”

On Friday, the company filed documents in state appellate court requesting it overturn Broderick’s financial sanction and his ruling that Gallaher and company CEO Chris Kasulka be deposed soon. Defense attorneys contended the company would suffer irreparable harm by having the two top employees questioned before less intrusive efforts were made to gain information. The request included the trial date be pushed back until a decision is made.

Later on Friday, the requests were denied, according to Stebner.

Judge denies cross complaint

In a separate hearing, Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum denied a request by Kang to file a cross complaint against PG&E. Kang claimed the utility company is likely responsible for the Tubbs fire, which forced the evacuation of residents and burned Villa Capri.

“Had it not been for PG&E literally causing the fire, there would be no allegations against, this complaint wouldn’t exist against defendants,” Kang said, according to a transcript of the June 15 hearing.

Stebner accused the company of trying to push back the trial date by seeking a new defendant. “My clients are going to be dead and their pain and suffering will die with them and they know that,” she said of the company’s request.

Gallaher "is one of the biggest developers in this county, whose house burned down, and to say that Bill Gallaher and Oakmont did not know about PG&E’s potential involvement (earlier in the case) is ludicrous,” Stebner told the court.

She also argued the case wasn’t about how the fire started, but elder abuse. “We have an elder abuse case for the evacuation and abandonment of these people.”

Kang denied any “bad faith” action by the company in seeking to add PG&E. “Had we known earlier we would’ve added PG&E as a cross defendant,” he said.

Adding PG&E to the case would add about one month to the trial’s start date, Kang told the judge. Daum disagreed.

“It may be a good faith offer by you, Mr. Kang, on behalf of your clients, that this case could go to trial a month later than it’s currently scheduled with PG&E involved, but there is no universe that I’m familiar with where that would be even vaguely possible,” the judge said.

The lawsuit was filed against Oakmont Senior Living and affiliates Oakmont Management Group and Oakmont of Varenna, doing business as Villa Capri. The company has moved ahead with plans to rebuild. It operates more than 20 senior living facilities in California, including four in Fountaingrove before the fire.

Oakmont of Varenna also is being sued by a resident who claimed she was left behind by staff as the fire approached.

Before the fires, in September, Stebner sued Oakmont Senior Living in Alameda County Superior Court, representing four seniors who alleged the company was depriving them of needed care and exposing them to risk of injury.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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