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Lawsuit claims senior-care chain covered up third Bay Area death from caustic liquid

A senior-care chain whose San Mateo facility saw two residents die after drinking caustic liquid has tried to cover up a third similar death at its care home in Walnut Creek, a new lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday against Kentucky-based care-home giant Atria by family members of Trudy Maxwell, one of the two San Mateo victims. The complaint refers to a third incident at Atria Walnut Creek, which had not been previously disclosed.

Dementia patient Constantine Canoun “ingested an unknown liquid that had been left unattended” in a kitchen area at the Walnut Creek facility in Contra Costa County on Aug. 23, four days before staff at the San Mateo facility served cleaning fluid instead of juice to Maxwell and Peter Schroder, Jr., both 93, the suit filed in San Mateo County Superior Court alleges. Canoun was taken to a local hospital and later died, according to the suit.

“At the time, Atria Walnut Creek said to the family and in public statements that Mr. Canoun had eaten ‘spicy chips’ and fallen ill as a result,” the suit claims. “That was an attempt to cover up Atria’s liability. Constantine had suffered extreme burns and lesions to his throat, esophagus, and larynx. Those injuries were consistent with having ingested a poisonous liquid.”

Canoun died nine days later, according to the suit. But meanwhile, Atria “did nothing” to inform management or staff at its other care homes about the alleged Walnut Creek incident, or to make staffing or training changes to prevent such incidents, the suit claimed.

“The red flag warning in Contra Costa was ignored,” the suit claims.

Filed by Trudy Maxwell’s eight children, the suit also alleges wrongful death and negligence after Maxwell, also a dementia patient, and two other residents drank cleaning fluid served as juice. Maxwell died on Aug. 29, two days after the poisoning. Schroder died Sept. 7. Schroder’s son and daughter have also filed a wrongful death and negligence suit against Atria.

“Mrs. Maxwell’s avoidable death was a tragic part of the epidemic of neglect of seniors,” the Maxwell family’s lawyer Niall McCarthy said in a statement. “Atria’s job is to enhance the lives of seniors, but they ended Mrs. Maxwell’s life. Atria served Trudy a cleaner which was more toxic than Drano. When you place your loved one in a senior facility, you do not expect it to be one of the most dangerous places in the Bay Area.”

According to the suit, a “heavy-duty commercial alkaline liquid” was poured into a smaller container in the kitchen during breakfast service. Another employee mistakenly brought the liquid to residents, believing it was cranberry juice.

Maxwell “immediately became distressed” but staff did not call 911 for more than “30 excruciating minutes,” the suit claimed. “Trudy was in extreme pain, distress, and agony for over 30 minutes while Atria staff simply waited,” the suit alleged. “The liquid began to burn and melt her mouth, throat, and esophagus. The toxic chemical essentially melted the lining of Trudy’s digestive tract.” The lawsuit document contains graphic photos showing apparent severe burns to Maxwell’s mouth.

Atria Park Senior Living said in a statement that it was still investigating the San Mateo incident, and has so far found that a staff member “filled a pitcher with liquid dishwashing detergent that has a nearly identical consistency and color to cranberry juice, with the intention of dispensing the liquid into a commercial dishwashing machine” in violation of the company’s policies. “Another staff member picked it up, mistaking it for juice, and served it to three residents,” Atria said.

The company, which has 43 care homes in California including 8 in the Bay Area, added, “The incidents at our San Mateo and Walnut Creek communities are isolated and unrelated.” The company did not offer any further explanation of the Walnut Creek incident.

Atria said it devotes “significant resources to ensure our staff are thoroughly trained and able to meet our residents’ needs at all times” and said it was continuing to work with authorities.

After the San Mateo incident, Atria said it had suspended “the employees involved” while it investigates, but did not say how many workers it suspended.

As in the suit filed by Schroder’s family, the Maxwell family claims Atria Park’s elderly care programs never met their expectations. The Maxwell family’s suit accuses Atria of treating Trudy Maxwell with “stunning and inexcusable neglect and abuse,” and claims she suffered several injuries during her 22 months at the facility, including cuts that required stitches, urinary tract infections and impacted bowels.

When one of Maxwell’s daughters asked an Atria Park of San Mateo employee how bowel impaction went unnoticed, the employee responded, “this is an assisted-care facility, we don’t deal with that,” the suit alleged.

In a July 2022 X-ray, doctors discovered Maxwell had broken her hip twice in the previous six months, much to the surprise of her family, the suit said. Maxwell’s family presented those concerns to Atria, along with worries that Atria Park employees hadn’t been brushing her teeth, leading to tooth problems. They said Atria responded by raising the cost of Maxwell’s one-bedroom unit “by $1,200 monthly, to a total of $7,195, citing the increased cost to account for ‘additional care services,’” the suit claimed.

In the past five years, Atria’s San Mateo facility has been cited for a dozen violations of state regulations governing care homes, the lawsuit alleges.

Maxwell’s family is seeking unspecified damages.

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