Wildfire lawsuit accuses Santa Rosa senior home of neglect

Four residents of a Santa Rosa senior home have accused it of abandoning residents in a wildfire lawsuit filed on November 20th. The Villa Capri assisted living center, operated by Oakmont Senior Living, was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire as it raged through Santa Rosa last month.

“I have been doing elder abuse cases since 1987,” said Kathryn Stebner, the attorney representing the four women and their families in this lawsuit. “This is one of the worst cases of its kind.”

When the Tubbs Fire began on October 8th, it was fueled by strong winds that quickly drove it to the outskirts of Santa Rosa. By 12:30 a.m. of October 9th, the Villa Capri building was filling with smoke as the firestorm closed in. It was the start of a nightmare for residents and their families, one that continues to affect many to this day.

Chaos, no evacuation plan, alleges wildfire lawsuit

Despite smoke filling the building, the wildfire lawsuit states that staff in the building had turned off fire alarms. Residents were left asleep as the fire moved in and would later be unable to retrieve belongings when help did arrive.

At around 2:00 a.m., Mark and Kathy Allen arrived to check on a family member at the facility. At this time, Villa Capri had no power, nor did it have back-up generators in operation. The Allens were forced to use the lights on their cellphones to wake residents throughout the building. There were only three people on staff available to assist, but none had access to keys for the Oakmont vans parked at the facility. A bus would arrive by 3:00 a.m., but it could not carry the nearly 70 residents. Roughly “a few dozen” residents were left behind, some of whom were in wheelchairs left on the second floor of the structure.

Melissa Lenghals, the daughter of another resident, was forced to break through the front door of the facility to access the lobby; the door had locked on its own, and no-one was on hand to unlock it. She and Kathy Allen would be left to evacuate roughly two dozen seniors. Of these, 14 were in the dementia care unit. By 4:00 a.m., several police cars arrived to help transport three more residents

It would be the heroics of volunteers like Lenghals and the Allens that ensured the whole building was evacuated before the flames consumed the facility. However, the story does not end here.

Oakmont accused of lying to media and families of seniors at Villa Capri

In the immediate aftermath of Villa Capri’s destruction, the state of California began to probe the circumstances behind the chaotic near-miss experienced by the seniors.

In response, Oakmont released an official statement that they were in the process of evacuating all facilities in the path of the fire. However, they accused emergency authorities of preventing their vehicles or personnel from approaching Villa Capri. The statement claimed that another nearby senior care facility experienced the same interference. Oakmont added that they were told emergency services would handle evacuation. They also contended that they were aware of at least one city bus sent to help evacuate Oakmont’s facility.

However, the testimony of other evacuees outside of Villa Capri does not agree with Oakmont’s claim that roadblocks were in place: evacuees reportedly traveled through the areas that were supposedly blocked without incident, and it appears that is not all Oakmont wasn’t entirely honest about.

The wildfire lawsuit plaintiffs claim that Oakmont management promised residents and their families they would have access to Villa Capri during the recovery. This was to allow people to try to recover any belongings that may have been left behind during the evacuation. However, Santa Rosa police reportedly had to force workers to stop tearing down the remains of the facility. This was not only the opposite of what was promised to Villa Capri’s residents, it was also interfering with the recovery and clean-up of toxic materials. Authorities were searching the greater neighborhood for such materials as well as seeking out the bodies of victims.

One senior ‘unaccounted for’ until family found them in a hospital

With nearly 70 people who could have been left behind, the evacuation is seen as miraculous despite the chaos. However, one of plaintiff’s families could have experienced tragedy. Elizabeth Budow’s family was never informed of her whereabouts until her family found them at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Her condition was grave: a broken hip, a wound on one of her heels, and abrasions all over her body. Neither the Villa Capri staff or Oakmont management ever informed the family of her location, and they do not know how she got to a hospital or how she received her injuries. Budow would later be moved to hospice care in the wake of the wildfires.

A lack of communication is a common thread in this story. Oakmont staff did not know of any emergency evacuation procedure. No management could be reached during the fire. Outside help was nearly unreachable, and there was little co-ordination with emergency services.

Wildfire lawsuit is not the first for Oakmont Senior Living

In September, Kathryn Stebner filed a lawsuit against Oakmont, representing four other women at the Alameda County Superior Court. The claims were that Oakmont staff were depriving them of necessary care and potentially exposing them to injury.

It is a troubling claim to make of any senior care facility. It is especially troubling to look back on with such an incident fresh in the minds of Santa Rosa’s residents. Should the wildfire lawsuit go against Oakmont, it could indicate a pattern of elder abuse and neglect. More residents and their families may feel emboldened to confront Oakmont in court.

For now, survivors of Villa Capri are safe in new facilities, but the questions about why they were possibly abandoned to an oncoming fire remain.


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