Wildfire lawsuit adds more plaintiffs, charges of wrongful death

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A November lawsuit against a California senior living community that was destroyed in an Oct. 9 wildfire was amended Thursday to include four additional former residents and claims that the subsequent deaths of two of the original four plaintiffs were hastened because the community failed to safely evacuate residents.

The lawsuit against Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management Group now includes a total of 13 plaintiffs — Oakmont of Villa Capri residents or their family members, all of whom allege that they or their family members were able to evacuate the Santa Rosa, CA, community only because of the daughters of two of the plaintiffs.

Former residents Elizabeth Budow, 92, and Virginia Gunn, 82, died Dec. 11 and 18, respectively, the amended lawsuit said.

Budow was blind, had dementia and had impaired hearing, according to the complaint. “As a result of Defendants' recklessness and negligent conduct during the fire, Elizabeth Budow was taken to the hospital with a broken hip, broken tooth, open wound on her heel, and abrasions and contusions all over her body,” the lawsuit said, adding that Budow later died “as a result of the trauma and injuries she experienced.”

Gunn, according to the complaint, had colon cancer and was evacuated by police car and taken to a veterans center and a church, neither of which had a bed or care providers for her. At the third site to which Gunn was taken, an assisted living community, she had to sleep on an air mattress, which she fell off of, necessitating a trip to a local emergency department and a blood transfusion, the lawsuit said. “The trauma she experienced during the evacuation was a substantial factor contributing to her death,” according to the complaint.

Evacuation plans

A former Villa Capri resident is seeking a court order requiring Oakmont to implement adequate emergency planning and evacuation procedures. The amended lawsuit also newly alleges that at least 80 residents of Oakmont's neighboring Varenna at Fountaingrove were evacuated only because one resident's grandchildren went room to room to find residents.

“Oakmont was gambling with people's lives when it failed to develop adequate evacuation plans before the fire,” said attorney Kathryn Stebner of Stebner & Associates, the San Francisco-based law firm that filed the original and amended lawsuits.

The amended complaint also includes new claims of disability discrimination because Oakmont's evacuation plans allegedly did not considered the needs of residents with disabilities.

“None of the Oakmont residents should have been abandoned, but it is especially appalling that the bedridden and disabled elders were left behind for a few family members to rescue,” Stebner said. “Fires and other disasters will happen again, and I fear that more Oakmont residents will be hurt if there is no accountability for Oakmont's recklessness during the Tubbs Fire.”

Letter to employees

The amended complaint makes several additional allegations, too, including that the community offered to pay employees $750 to $1,500 each in exchange for their agreement that they had no knowledge of any legal violations they had not already disclosed to the company and that they would not file a complaint against the company in the future.

Stebner & Associates shared with McKnight's Senior Living a Dec. 8 “severance agreement letter” that Oakmont Management Group purportedly had sent to former Villa Capri employees. The letter offered a dollar amount to the recipient (both the dollar amount and the name of the recipient were redacted from the letter shared with McKnight's Senior Living) and said in part, “In consideration for this payment, you represent and warrant that you have no knowledge of any practices engaged in by Oakmont Management Group (OMG) that has [sic], or may constitute a violation of applicable local, state, or federal law or regulation that you have not previously disclosed OMG.”

The letter also said that payment would be contingent on the recipient promising not to file a complaint or charges against OMG with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing “or with any other local, state or federal agency or court. ...You agree that if any such agency or court assumes jurisdiction of any complaint(s) or charge(s) against OMG on your behalf, you will request such agency or court to withdraw from the matter, or refuse any benefits derived therefrom.”

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

Oakmont did not respond to a request for comment from McKnight's Senior Living by the publication deadline.

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