Seven months after 74-year-old dementia patient Carol Fundingsland was found dead on Highway 1 after disappearing from Sunshine Villa assisted living facility, her sons Erik and Ronald Kuentzel have filed a lawsuit.
The brothers are seeking compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of their mother, who was admitted to the facility at 80 Front St. in Santa Cruz at 1 p.m. Friday, April 9, 2010 and wandered out the front door at 5:30 p.m. that evening.
Staff noticed Fundingsland was gone around 9 p.m. that night, at which point they searched the facility and called Erik Kuentzel to inform him. He did not receive the voicemails until 11:05 p.m., at which point Sunshine Villa reported her disappearance to police. Erik spent the next three days searching for his mother on foot, while Sunshine Villa canvassed neighborhoods. Police responded to several possible sightings that weekend.
When the body was found on a muddy service road just south of Bonny Doon Road on the evening of April 12—10 miles from the facility—the coroner’s report indicated that Fundingsland, who left the facility in a hooded sweatshirt, Capri pants and tennis shoes, died of exposure and hypothermia. Bruises and scratches indicated that she likely wandered through wooded terrain in the cold and rain.
“The worst part about this situation is that my mother died a totally preventable, traumatic and painful death,” says Erik, who says he was repeatedly reassured by Sunshine Villa’s Director of Community Relations, Barbara Quinton, that Fundingsland would receive special care upon admittance. “My mom died because the staff at Sunshine Villa failed to do their job, plain and simple. The only way to ensure that what happened to my mom doesn’t happen to other people’s families is to hold Sunshine Villa accountable.”
Since Fundingsland suffered from dementia and enjoyed walking as a pastime, Sunshine Villa had urged Erik to have a WanderGuard bracelet put on her wrist as a safety measure to notify staff if she left the facility. Since Sunshine Villa offers various levels of care for seniors, the facility doors are not locked 24 hours per day, as they would be in a dementia care unit. Although Erik purchased the optional bracelet for his mother, it was never affixed.
“When you’re caring for the most vulnerable people in society, you have to hold their hand and take that responsibility seriously,” says Nathan Benjamin, the plaintiffs’ attorney of Santa Cruz law firm Comstock, Thompson, Kontz & Brenner. “And the only way that an entity like Sunshine Villa, that is profit-driven, will change their practices and policies is
Because of the incident, Sunshine Villa has since been placed in a two-year compliance program by the California State Department of Social Services and has terminated several staff people.
In April, Pat Holahan, executive director of Sunshine Villa at the time, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel: “We are deeply saddened by the death of Ms. Fundingsland. This incident is the first of its kind to ever occur in our senior community’s 17-year history.”
Though the court has not yet set a date for hearing the case, the lawsuit claims that Sunshine Villa and its representatives neglected to fulfill its basic duty to keep Fundingsland safe, that the facility fraudulently misrepresented the skill and training of its staff as well as the measures in place to ensure the safety of its residents and that it should be held responsible for her wrongful death. It argues that the facility committed elder abuse by failing to adequately care for a dependent adult in its care.
“Ms. Fundingsland was understandably upset and disoriented during her first night in this new facility,” says Benjamin. “Which is precisely why measures such as the WanderGuard bracelet should have been immediately affixed when she was admitted. By putting profits above people, Sunshine Villa neglected to provide even basic safety to this elderly woman.”
Sunshine Villa’s attorney, Rima Badawiya of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith law firm in San Bernadino, could not comment on pending litigation. A phone call to Sunshine Villa was not returned by press time.
“What happened to my mother was a horrible thing,” says Erik, who hopes that the case will send a message to the community. “They really let her down.”