Arbitration agreements, resident actions mean wildfire lawsuit should be tossed, operator says

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The existence of arbitration agreements means that a California court does not have jurisdiction in a lawsuit alleging that a senior living community abandoned residents during an October wildfire, according to the community and its developer and management companies. They also state that residents or others are to blame for any injuries or trauma that may have occurred as a result of the event. 

Defendants Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management Group, as well as the now-destroyed Villa Capri community in Santa Rosa, CA, made the claims as part of 34 defenses in their Feb. 20 response to the legal action brought Nov. 20 by four former residents and amended Jan. 18 to add more former residents as well as wrongful death claims after two of the original plaintiffs died. The lawsuit now has 13 plaintiffs, including family members.

The lawsuit alleges that on Oct. 9, the night of the wildfire, only three caregivers were on duty to care for 70 residents, including some who used walkers or wheelchairs and others with dementia who lived in a secured section of the building. Residents, the lawsuit states, evacuated with the help of family members, and some were injured or traumatized in the process. The lawsuit further claims that the deaths of two residents were hastened by the experience.

In their response, Villa Capri and Oakmont denied the allegations and said that enforceable arbitration agreements existed. Among the other claims they made in the response to the lawsuit were that “plaintiffs failed to take adequate precautions,” that “damages sustained by plaintiffs, if any, were caused by the acts of others” and that “care and treatment rendered … complied in all respects with the applicable and appropriate standard of care.”

Attorney Kathryn Stebner, who is representing the plaintiffs, said: “Oakmont's initial defenses include that these elders … should have done more to get themselves out of a burning assisted living facility. These elders came to Oakmont because they needed help with walking, eating, toileting and showering. Some with severe dementia could hardly follow simple instructions. How could they evacuate without help?”

Oakmont's attorneys had not responded to McKnight's Senior Living's request for comment by the publication deadline.

Earlier this month, Stebner filed a lawsuit on behalf of a resident of Oakmont Senior Living's Varenna at Fountaingrove retirement community in Santa Rosa, CA, a neighboring property to Villa Capri. That lawsuit alleges that more than 80 residents were abandoned by staff members instead of being evacuated in the October wildfire.

Stebner & Associates also filed a class action against Oakmont in September. That complaint claims understaffing at all of Oakmont communities in California.

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