SANTA ROSA, Calif. - The operator of two Santa Rosa senior care homes will pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit arising from when the facilities' staff members abandoned residents as a wildfire swept through the city in 2017, authorities said.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced the settlement to the civil suit Thursday. Her office and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra's pursued the case against Windsor-based companies Varenna LLC, Oakmont Management Group LLC, and Oakmont Senior Living LLC.
"This judgment will help ensure the safety of seniors and send a message to all facilities that undertake the care of vulnerable members of our community that they must be prepared to protect their residents during a disaster," Ravitch said in a statement.
The settlement requires the companies to create "enhanced" emergency disaster and evacuation plans "and ensure that all administrators and staff have sufficient training and familiarity with all aspects of the plan to ensure its timely and effective deployment." It also orders the companies to hire an independent monitor - from three selected by the county and state - for five years to make sure they comply with the settlement's requirements.
As the Tubbs Fire tore through Santa Rosa's hilltop neighborhood of Fountaingrove in October 2017, staff at Varenna, an independent living facility, and Villa Capri, an assisted living facility for people needing extra care, left close to 100 residents to fend for themselves, state investigators found. Family members and first responders who discovered the residents had been left behind evacuated them to safety. But, the state Department of Social Services investigation concluded that the Villa Capri residents would have perished were it not for their rescuers' efforts. Villa Capri burned down in the fire; its neighbor Varenna survived with damage.
The complaint filed against the facilities' owners and operators charged that they "failed to adequately plan for and train staff on emergency evacuations and preparedness of the facilities...failed to timely and adequately notify residents of the need for an emergency evacuation during the Tubbs Fire," and abandoned the residents during the blaze.
Oakmont Management Group will pay the settlement fees to Sonoma County and the state and cover investigative costs. The company appeared in a statement to shift some blame to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.
The statement said the independent monitor "will allow Oakmont to better plan and prepare for those instances, as in the Tubbs Fire, where the City and County Offices of Emergency Services fail to adequately plan or implement public safety evacuation warnings or procedures sufficient to allow for an orderly evacuation of our communities and when the assistance of local fire or law enforcement personnel is not available."
In the statement, company spokesman Nathan Ballard also said: "It was fiscally prudent to resolve these issues via a settlement instead of pursuing years of litigation over this long-past dispute. This settlement will also protect our team members from the threat of unwarranted criminal prosecution arising from any conduct occurring before or during the fire. We are confident that we would have prevailed should this matter have proceeded further, but for the sake of our team members, residents and stakeholders in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are pleased to lay this matter to rest."
Advocates and family members said the settlement left a sour taste.
"I'm grateful they took this case on, but I'm just really disappointed because I wanted criminal charges filed - I felt the whole time it was criminal what the management did. Or didn't do," said Beth Eurotas-Steffy, whose mother was abandoned at Villa Capri.
"It seems like it's just a very light slap on the wrist for Oakmont Senior Living," Eurotas-Steffy added.
"We looked at the investigation from the standpoint of filing criminal charges and decided this avenue would provide the most protection to the residents and public through the five-year injunction with monitoring," Ravitch said in an email. "The financial impact was not as important as putting procedures in place to ensure there would be adequate protective measures."
Pat McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Homes Reform, said the injunction requiring an independent monitor was a potentially positive aspect of the settlement. Still, she said, that will depend upon what the emergency plans that were ordered turn out to be.
"What does 'enhanced' mean? They didn't have anything before, so anything they do is going to be enhanced," she said. "Those people should never have been allowed to operate a facility again. What they did was unbelievable."