A San Mateo assisted living facility – already being sued over the deaths of two residents mistakenly served cleaning fluid – is now being sued by the family of a man who died several weeks earlier, after an unattended fall at the facility in June, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned.
The death of 79-year-old Gary Podesta Sr. on July 9 marked the first of three deaths at Atria Park of San Mateo over a three month period this summer. His son, Gary Podesta Jr. says he still doesn’t understand what happened to his father.
“How could this have happened? You know, and why wasn't something done?” Podesta Jr. said in a recent interview.
When he moved his father to Atria Park of San Mateo from another Atria facility back in April, Podesta Jr. said, he was assured his father would be constantly monitored.
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“We'll do whatever it takes to get him the best care,” Podesta Jr. said about his mindset for his father, a retired wholesale florist who had been having memory problems, confusion and other side effects from brain swelling. He also had trouble seeing and hearing.
But in June, Podesta Jr. got a call from San Mateo police, saying they had found his father wandering a half mile from Atria Park. When the facility couldn’t explain what happened, Podesta Jr. said he demanded to see security video.
“They never showed me the video, but that's when they fessed up and they admitted that he had actually walked out through the front door and there was nobody at the front desk at the time,” Podesta Jr. said.
Although wandering is not uncommon at such facilities, an earlier incident had already prompted regulators to order Atria Park to do more to prevent it. But even after Podesta Sr. wandered off, regulators accepted Atria’s assurances its staff would be retrained.
Just two weeks after the wandering incident, Podesta Jr. came to visit on Father’s Day. He saw his father’s face was swollen and part of his forehead was black and blue. Atria officials were not able to say what had happened. After Podesta Sr. died in July, the San Mateo county coroner’s autopsy concluded he suffered a “mechanical fall” that triggered a stroke and other complications.
In a statement, Atria officials say they took the case seriously, conducted an internal review and are working with state community care licensing officials. “The safety and well-being of our residents will always be our top priority,” Atria said in a statement.
Podesta Jr. says he was still reeling from his father’s death when news broke in August about Atria Park residents being given cleaning fluid instead of fruit juice. Two later died.
“I just don't get it. So it kind of made me more upset again,” Podesta Jr. told us. “I just kind of kept thinking, what the heck is going on over there? It’s just, you know, it's mind boggling.”
The families of the two poisoning victims have joined the Podesta family in filing lawsuits, accusing Atria of elder abuse and wrongful death for skimping on staffing to save money.
Atria firmly denies that accusation, saying in a statement it devotes “significant resources to ensure our staff are thoroughly trained, and we maintain staffing levels that are consistent with the care needs of our residents.’’
Back in 2019, records show regulators raised a red flag about care levels when they issued a citation after the death of an 88-year-old blind woman who suffered an unattended fall the year before. But records show the citation alleging insufficient care levels was dismissed just hours after being issued after regulators met with Atria management.
Kathryn Stebner sued Atria on behalf of the family of the fall victim, Josefina Iniguez. She said it was virtually impossible for regulators to have made a conclusive determination on staffing levels in such a short time.
“So there's no way that they can figure out that they had enough staffing in a day's time,” she said, “because it takes a long time to figure something like that out -- there's no way.”
Stebner now represents the Podestas as well as the family of one of the poisoning victims, Peter Schroder Jr.
“It’s about our elders,” she said. “These companies are making money hand over fist, and all they need to do is decrease their profits and get more people there to take care of these folks.”
As for Podesta Jr., he says now is the time to do something to prevent more deaths.
“Nobody should have to go through what those families went through, what we went through,” he said.
But Stebner worries we may never know how those three death cases turn out, because Atria Park recently moved to have them resolved through closed-door arbitration. She says she plans to fight that in court.