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Lawsuit accuses Oakmont Senior Living of slandering staff to cover up problems with evacuations during 2017 wildfires

By Julie Johnson
April 5, 2019

A group of former caregivers and maintenance workers at two Santa Rosa senior care homes are suing Oakmont Senior Living, accusing their former employer of publicly blaming them for abandoning residents during the 2017 firestorm and trying to silence workers during a state investigation into problems with the evacuations.

Two former residents at one of the facilities, Oakmont of Varenna, joined the suit, alleging that Oakmont Senior Living failed to provide them with adequate care during and after the fires.

Managers at Varenna and an adjacent facility, Oakmont of Villa Capri, “abandoned the residents and staff to deal with the disaster and emergency on their own, in their own way and at risk to their lives and safety,” according to the 39-page complaint seeking unspecified damages filed Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The plaintiffs include four former employees, a spouse and one current maintenance worker at Varenna and Villa Capri, two Fountaingrove facilities operated by Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living.

They claim the company’s top managers conspired to cover up its failures during the ∂employs fire and blame a skeleton crew of low-wage, overnight workers who were left to rescue more than a hundred residents without emergency lights, flashlights or generators and had no evacuation training or even keys to a van they could have used to drive people to safety.

“These are the people who took it upon themselves, heroically and at the detriment of their lives, including an 8½-months’ pregnant woman, to rescue people,” said Michael Fiumara, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit provides the first in-depth account of the experience of staff members on duty that night, as well as one staff member who was not working but came to help anyway.

One of the caregivers, Anett Rivas, was 22 years old and pregnant with her daughter the night of the fires. In an interview Thursday, Rivas said she spent hours comforting Villa Capri residents until a relative of a resident found keys to a facility van. By that point, the building had caught fire, she said. Rivas said she is pursuing the libel claim against her former employer because the company failed to take responsibility for its role in the harrowing experiences of its staff and residents.

“None of them risked their lives, but we did,” Rivas said.

Representatives and attorneys for Oakmont Senior Living didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment Thursday. Two top administrators named in the suit, Varenna executive director Nathan Condie and Villa Capri executive director Deborah Smith, also couldn’t be reached.

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 before the fire.

State investigators determined about 100 elderly and infirm people were abandoned at the two adjacent Fountaingrove facilities, including about 20 people at Villa Capri who would have died without a rescue by relatives and first responders. Villa Capri burned to the ground and Varenna was damaged in the fire.

The state Department of Social Services moved to strip Oakmont Senior Living of its licenses to operate both facilities and to permanently bar Smith and Condie from running senior care facilities. But in November, Oakmont Senior Living reached a settlement with the state, admitting staff were unprepared for a disaster like the Tubbs fire. The company and its top administrators were placed on probation, and must comply with a set of orders such as establishing lists of each resident and their needs and create protocols for warning residents and evacuating the facilities

In a separate 2018 case, a group of residents and relatives sued Oakmont Senior Living, claiming the company abandoned people in immediate peril at the two facilities. The case settled out of court last year and the terms were kept confidential.

Villa Capri, a high-end 72-bed assisted living and memory care home, is being rebuilt and scheduled to reopen this summer. Varenna is licensed for up to 322 residents and sustained some damage but reopened in late 2017.

All residents survived the fires, although plaintiffs in the 2018 case said the trauma from the evacuations hastened the deaths of three former residents.

The abandonment of Villa Capri and Varenna residents have had statewide implications.

Thursday, the state Senate voted unanimously to support a bill that would expand the potential civil liability for caretakers who desert senior patients during an emergency. Senate Bill 314, introduced by state. Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would add “abandonment” to civil elder abuse laws.

The goal of the bill is to force companies and agencies charged with caring for vulnerable, elderly people to prepare for emergencies and create avenues for serious consequences when they fail to protect dependent people.

“If they know there are consequences — significant financial consequences and potentially jail time — perhaps they’ll do a better job on the front end preparing to ensure they are trained to handle this very frail population during a disaster,” Dodd said.

The lawsuit makes a wide-ranging set of allegations, including workplace discrimination and failing to protect residents’ belongings in the fire’s aftermath. But the core of the complaint focuses on the plaintiffs’ claims the company failed to provide its staff with training and tools that might have helped them evacuate residents. And after the fires, according to the suit, the company and its managers tried to bribe and intimidate employees to prevent them from providing statements to state investigators looking into the evacuation problems.

“The workers want to clear their names,” said Noreen Evans, an attorney representing the plaintiffs with Fiumara.

Two plaintiffs in the case are former Varenna residents Joan Coke and Helen Strassel, both octogenarians who are accusing the company of negligence and elder abuse.

Additional plaintiffs in the case include current Varenna maintenance worker Andre Blakely; former Varenna maintenance worker Michael Rodriguez; former Varenna caregiver Ma Teresa Martinez and her husband Sigmund Martinez; and former Varenna caregiver Maria Joffely Cervantes, who lived on campus with her daughter. Cervantes was not on duty that night and was visiting a resident at a nearby hospital, but when she heard about the fire she got through roadblocks and joined the evacuation effort, according to Fiumara.

On Thursday, Oakmont Senior Living placed Blakely, 58, on paid administrative leave, Fiumara said.

The night of the fires, Blakely and Rodriguez searched for generators a supervisor had said were in a boiler room, but no generators were there, according to the complaint. They went door-to-door together warning residents and bringing them from upper floors downstairs. In the document, they said Condie, the administrator, didn’t respond when Blakely asked about an evacuation plan and that Condie caused confusion when he later told some residents to return to their rooms.

At one point when Condie was preparing to drive away with some residents in a vehicle, Rodriguez asked to join them but Condie declined and said there wasn’t room, the lawsuit states.

Rodriguez recalled being worried about Blakey and was calling his cellphone. At one point the phone picked up and Rodriguez could hear Blakely coaxing a woman: “Ma’am if you don’t give me your hand, we are going to die,” he recalled.

He would later learn that Blakey had rescued a woman who could barely walk and was left alone in a building, getting her downstairs and driving her to a hospital in his own car.

“I felt horrible, and I still have nightmares about that night,” said Rodriguez, 27, of Santa Rosa.

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