Failed wildfire evacuation of Santa Rosa care homes fuels new bill to protect seniors

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The abandonment of residents at two Santa Rosa senior homes during the October 2017 wildfires has fueled new legislation from state Sen. Bill Dodd that would broaden the potential civil liability for caretakers who desert their senior patients.

Senate Bill 314, introduced by Dodd on Friday, would add “abandonment” to California’s civil elder abuse laws, expanding on the existing legal liability — civil and criminal — faced by those who hurt or allow harm to befall elderly dependents.

Dodd, D-Napa, cited the “unacceptable” conduct at the adjacent Oakmont of Villa Capri and Varenna care homes in Fountaingrove, where state investigators determined staff members abandoned about 100 elderly residents as the Tubbs fire closed in two years ago.

He hoped his bill would help prevent such cases in future disasters. It appears to be the first legislation stemming directly from the abandonment cases tied to Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living, which owns the two care homes.

“Whether they’re a single caregiver in a home or a commercial establishment, they need to understand that they’re there to help the most vulnerable in our society and that they have a responsibility in natural disasters to make sure that these people are safe, rather than just run out on them,” Dodd said Saturday in an interview.

Existing state law gives elderly victims of physical abuse or neglect — and, if they die, their relatives — specific legal paths to seek damages. Dodd’s bill adds “desertion or willful forsaking of an elder or a dependent adult by anyone having care or custody of that person” where a “reasonable” person wouldn’t abandon them to the offenses eligible for enhanced civil remedies.

Beth Eurotas-Steffy’s 85-year-old mother, Alice, was among those rescued from Villa Capri only after other residents’ family members discovered she and others were stranded there.

“She and about 20 other residents, all requiring walkers and wheelchairs, were abandoned when the staff left as the fire approached,” Eurotas-Steffy said in a written statement released by Dodd’s office. “They survived due to the bravery and sacrifice of family members who came to check on their parents.”

Eurotas was among a group of relatives and residents who sued Oakmont Senior Living and its affiliates in 2017, alleging its staff had abandoned people in clear peril at the two sites.

The company and its representatives vigorously contested claims, accusing some residents of endangering themselves that night. It settled the lawsuits out of court last summer and then admitted in a deal made public with the state in November that its employees had left elderly and infirm residents at the two facilities during the firestorm.

The settlement averted a public hearing where state regulators were set to lay out their case against the company and allowed the facilities to retain their operating licenses, while dropping permanent bans for two administrators that oversaw the sites.

Villa Capri, a high-end 72-bed assisted living and memory care home, was destroyed in the inferno, while the Varenna home, licensed for up to 322 residents, was spared. Villa Capri is being rebuilt and is expected to reopen this spring.

Oakmont Senior Living was founded in 1997 by longtime Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher. The company operates more than 20 elder care facilities in California, including four in Fountaingrove.

Dodd’s office noted that the Consumer Attorneys of California and the California Attorneys of Nursing Home Reform have backed his legislation.

A 2015 report by the Public Policy Institute of California projected that the state’s senior population would grow from about 4.6 million to 8.6 million from 2012 to 2030. The report also projected the number of people requiring help with self care or living in nursing homes would nearly double over the same period, leading to about 1 million elderly Californians needing help with basic functions of life like eating and bathing.

Dodd noted that destructive fires, earthquakes and floods will continue to strike California as more baby boomers age into retirement, and he argued the state needs to do more to safeguard seniors.

“We don’t have our act together right now in the state of California,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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