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California Law Inspired by Seniors Left Behind in 2017 Fires

The new law adds “abandonment” to the list of offenses eligible for enhanced civil remedies under state laws prohibiting elder abuse. Violators can be forced to pay civil damages, plus legal fees.

by Andrew Beale, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / June 28, 2019
Jessica Curry, right, a grad student with the Human Identification Laboratory, sorts through fire rubble to try and find victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. TNS

(TNS) — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill late Wednesday that increases civil penalties for caregivers who abandon elders during an emergency, legislation inspired by the stories of residents left behind at two Fountaingrove senior care homes during the 2017 wildfires.

The new law, authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, adds “abandonment” to the list of offenses eligible for enhanced civil remedies under state laws prohibiting elder abuse. Violators can be forced to pay up to $250,000 in civil damages, plus legal fees.

Existing California law already provides criminal penalties for elder abandonment up to seven years in prison if a senior dies as the result of abandonment.

Dodd has pointed to the events at two care homes operated by Oakmont Senior Living during the October 2017 wildfires as the impetus for his bill, SB 314.

“Our senior citizens are the most vulnerable members of our community in many respects,” Dodd said in an interview Thursday. “Those people that are caring for (the elderly) need to know and understand that they have a responsibility to see it through, or they could be charged with a serious crime.”

Last September, state regulators filed a complaint alleging that employees at the two facilities, Oakmont of Villa Capri and Oakmont of Varenna, abandoned about 100 elderly and infirm residents as the flames approached. More than 20 people left behind at Villa Capri would have died when the facility burned to the ground if they had not been rescued by relatives and first responders, investigators concluded.

Oakmont Senior Living initially denied the allegations but later admitted its staff failed to warn or evacuate all residents before they fled.

The admission, part of a settlement struck in November with the state Department of Social Services, averted a public hearing and allowed both Varenna and Villa Capri to retain their operating licenses.

Oakmont Senior Living and state regulators agreed staff intending to shuttle residents to safety were “precluded” from returning to Varenna or Villa Capri “by local authorities,” according to the settlement. Oakmont officials had claimed Santa Rosa police stationed along Fountaingrove Parkway barred their staff from returning to the facilities.

Bill Gallaher, the founder and managing member of Oakmont Senior Living, did not return requests for comment Thursday.

Villa Capri, a high-end 72-bed assisted living and memory care home, was destroyed in the inferno while Varenna, licensed for up to 322 residents, was spared. All residents at both facilities survived the fires, though plaintiffs who sued Oakmont alleged that trauma from the evacuations hastened the deaths of three residents.

Oakmont reached a confidential settlement last August with elderly residents and family members who sued the company over the events at Villa Capri. The facility has been rebuilt and is scheduled to reopen this summer.

Beth Eurotas-Steffy, whose mother Alice Eurotas was left behind at Villa Capri, said she supported Dodd’s bill in hopes of preventing a repeat of what happened to her mother.

“I have a real personal connection to this bill,” she said. “It means to me that residents of these senior care facilities or assisted living facilities will be a little safer.”

Eurotas-Steffy said that she is meeting with state Sen. Mike McGuire next month to share further ideas for legislation to protect people living in senior care facilities. She will ask him to propose bills to require senior care facilities to maintain on-site generators, mandate minimum staffing for the facilities, and require them to implement emergency evacuation plans.

“I’m excited about what Sen. Dodd has done, but to me it’s a first step and a small step,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale.

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©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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