Gullixson: Were the bedridden residents of Villa Capri really at fault?

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I’m beginning to understand why shows like “Stranger Things” are so popular. Living in “the upside down” feels like home.

We seem to have fallen into an alternative universe where the FBI is considered corrupt while Russia can be trusted, teachers are being encouraged to pack heat along with their pencils and the White House has greater turnover than a Holiday Inn.

I thought I had heard it all — until this story came along.

Remember those residents of Villa Capri, an assisted living facility in Santa Rosa, who allegedly were abandoned by the staff as the Tubbs fire approached on Oct. 9 and were saved because of the efforts of family members who ferried them to safety? As you recall, those who were left behind — representing nearly a third of the 70 residents of this posh assisted living facility in Fountaingrove — were among the most frail. All had mobility problems. Most used walkers. Some were in wheelchairs. About 20 suffered from dementia and were in a locked second-floor unit.

A group of residents and their families have sued the owners and managers of the facility claiming negligence, wrongful death, elder abuse, intentional infliction of emotional abuse among other things.

The facility is operated by Oakmont Senior Living, founded by developer Bill Gallaher, and managed by Oakmont Management Group. The two companies, along with Villa Capri, are listed as defendants.

As my colleagues at The Press Democrat Randi Rossmann and J.D. Morris reported on March 5, the companies’ attorneys have since filed a response to the lawsuit. It turns out, according to this filing, that it was all a big misunderstanding. It wasn’t the owners and managers of the complex who were to blame, the attorneys contend. It was the residents themselves.

The residents “failed to take precautions, which would have avoided and/or diminished the injuries and damages, if any,” the attorneys wrote.

They further argue that the owners and managers are not responsible in any way “for damages sustained … caused and contributed to by other parties in the case.” In other words, if residents were injured in the process of being rescued by good Samaritans, that’s on them. They take no responsibility.

So there you have it. These senior Santa Rosans have only themselves to blame for the injuries and emotional trauma they suffered while fleeing moments before the complex burned to the ground on Oct. 9.

It’s not exactly clear what “precautions” the residents could have taken, but, based on this legal document, we’re clearly left with the impression that they should have been more careful.

Take Elizabeth Budow for example. The 92-year-old woman had lived at Villa Capri for more than four years. She was blind, bedridden and lived in a special locked second-floor unit for residents with dementia.

According to the lawsuit, as the Tubbs fire approached early on Oct. 9, the power went out and the building began filling with smoke, but the staff chose not to wake any residents. When the building’s fire alarms went off, Villa Capri staff members, reportedly at the direction of managers, turned them off, the complaint alleges.

Two hours later, when concerned family members arrived, they and Villa Capri staff began waking people, but the facility had no backup generators and “nobody had access keys to the Oakmont vans parked at the facility which could have been used to evacuate the residents,” the suit claims.

Because the elevators were down, those on the second floor had to make their own way down the stairs in the dark. Some had to roll or slide without assistance, injuring themselves in the process.

It’s unclear how, but at some point, Budow suffered a broken hip, a broken tooth and multiple other cuts and bruises. She was taken to the hospital and later underwent surgery. She died on Dec. 11.

At one point, as residents were being shuttled to safety, two family members, Melissa Lenghals and Kathy Allen, were left to evacuate some 24 seniors, including 14 residents of the dementia care unit, according to the suit. As they were helping residents to cars, the front door of the complex locked behind them, and Allen and Lenghals could not get back inside. “By this time, the hillside immediately next to the facility was on fire,” the lawsuit says. So Lenghals removed the car hitch attached to the back of her vehicle and used it to break into the front door of Villa Capri and prop it open to rescue more residents, including some in wheelchairs.

Their story is both harrowing and heroic. It seems to me that Villa Capri owes these individuals a big thank you, not a nine-page document full of lawyerspeak for “you should have been more careful.”

That said, I’m still curious as to what “precautions” that all of these people should have taken to have avoided this situation. The only one that I can really think of is this: Maybe they shouldn’t have moved to Villa Capri in the first place.

Maybe they believed that a complex that costs up to $11,000 a month per person and offers, according to its website, a “professional and caring staff” that “provide assistance 24-hours a day,” would have an adequate emergency evacuation plan. According to the lawsuit, it didn’t.

I should note that Oakmont Management Group officials and attorneys have not responded to requests from this newspaper for comment. In a statement made back on Oct. 16, an Oakmont Management Group executive said that emergency authorities had prevented staff members from returning to the complex as they were shuttling residents to safety that morning, a contention that family members have rejected, noting they had moved freely to and from the complex between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

I should also note that since this lawsuit was filed, a 94-year-old resident of Varenna, another Oakmont Senior Living retirement community located next door, has also filed a lawsuit claiming that she and other Varenna residents also were abandoned by staff that morning. Meanwhile, the state Department of Social Services, which licenses senior living facilities, has launched a formal investigation of the evacuations at both Villa Capri and Varenna, which was singed but did not burn. It’s not clear when that investigation will be completed.

It’s also not clear whatever happened to the city’s investigation into how an excavator and dump trucks, allegedly without the proper permits, managed to start clearing the Villa Capri site within 10 days of the fire, before the ruins had been searched for bodies and toxic materials. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were “promised” by Villa Capri officials that they would be able to search the ruins for their personal possessions. According to the claims, that didn’t happen.

Given all of these allegations and the known fire risks up there, one might think Santa Rosa would be cautious about letting Oakmont Senior Living open any more complexes. Not so. In fact, the city’s Design Review Board gave final approval Thursday to the group’s fifth senior living complex in Fountaingrove, this one to be built a half-mile from the ruins of Villa Capri.

The Emerald Isle project, which would offer a mix of assisted living and memory care, will house roughly 70 people. If no appeal is made to the City Council, the project will now be built.

My guess is if all of this were part of an episode of “Stranger Things,” nobody would believe it.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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