A lawsuit seeking to hold a Whitefish care center accountable for its role in a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 has grown to include additional claims, including conspiracy, alleging the center was just one entity in a multi-state network of shoddy, for-profit facilities that enriched corporate owners while furnishing residents with insufficient, often negligent care at the height of the pandemic, resulting in their wrongful deaths, infections and inhumane treatment.
As a result of the negligence, the lawsuit alleges a total of 13 residents died at the long-term care facility in Whitefish, including the six individuals on whose behalf family members are seeking damages, as well as others who “languished in filthy conditions” while dozens of individuals — 39 in total — were infected with COVID-19.
Initially filed last month in Flathead County District Court, the lawsuit has since been amended to include a growing roster of plaintiffs along with new allegations in support of claims against Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation Center, which state and federal agencies said failed to meet the most basic health guidelines, as well as new defendants and additional causes of action against them, including conspiracy and alter ego.
The list of new defendants includes a dizzying web of corporate entities headquartered in multiple states, including four facilities in Montana (Whitefish, Great Falls, Dillon, and Butte) and others in Nevada, Delaware, and California, all doing business under vaguely different names and aliases that are a variation of “Sweetwater Care,” and which share “common and/or overlapping identity, ownership, financial assets, business assets, management structure, members, offices, accounting, and/or principal place of business,” the lawsuit states.
“Acting in concert, the defendants conspired to unjustly enrich themselves by drastically reducing funding, staffing, and financial investment at the Sweetwater facility, and/or failing to take corrective actions when the lack of reasonable care and conditions at the facility became evident,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit identifies the network of businesses as “Sweetwater Entity Defendants,” including Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation Center; Sweetwater Whitefish Opco, LLC; Sweetwater Care MT OPCO, LLC; Sweetwater Care OPCO LLC; Sweetwater Care Propco, LLC; Sweetwater Care Resource, LLC; Sweetwater Investment Management, LLC d/b/a Sweetwater Private Equity, “as well as other
Sweetwater-related corporate entities referenced in this complaint or yet to be discovered.”
“The object of the Sweetwater Defendants conspiracy was to dangerously reduce the cost of operation of the facility and to increase financial returns from the business despite the resulting obvious insufficient care provided to residents and the inability to provide the heightened monitoring, attention, staffing, and care requirements associated with the ongoing pandemic,” the lawsuit continues.
Attorneys with McGarvey Law in Kalispell, who are representing the plaintiffs in the case, declined to say whether additional defendants would be named or if further amendments would be made to the complaint, explaining they are still trying to discern the corporate web and how far the operation spans.
As of Nov. 25, the lawsuit spans nearly 40 pages and describes the conditions that persisted at Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation, drawing from surveys conducted by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) regarding the absence of public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As one example, the lawsuit describes a period during the outbreak in which 58 residents were living at the facility while new intakes were mixed into the general population, in violation of rules requiring a 14-day isolation period for all new residents.
On Aug. 31, more than two weeks after the first positive case of COVID-19 inside the facility, and after four residents had died, regulators conducted a second survey and documented numerous instances of non-compliance with infection control guidelines, despite the earlier warnings and violations.
The violations reported in the survey included: rooming presumptive COVID-19 positive residents with COVID-19 negative residents; housekeeping staff not following personal protective equipment (PPE) precautions while cleaning COVID-19 isolation and non-isolation facility rooms during shifts; staff incorrectly donning and doffing PPE and entering COVID-19 positive resident rooms without proper PPE; staff either not using N95 masks when necessary or using them improperly when worn for COVID-19 positive residents; lack of signage or correct signage for infection control precautions for identified residents; incorrect safety precautions used by a resident and outside window visitor; an improperly masked COVID-19 positive resident, who had memory deficits, and was within six feet of a COVID-19 negative resident.
In a subsequent “Statement of Deficiencies and Plan of Correction,” prepared by DPHHS and CMS on Sept. 14, the agencies wrote that the facility’s “noncompliance has placed the health and safety of recipients in its care at risk for serious injury, serious harm, and serious impairment or death.”
The lawsuit also names as a defendant Reid Crickmore, executive director of Whitefish Care and Rehab, and accuses him of ignoring complaints, guidelines and agency recommendations and requirements, while allowing the unsafe conditions “to persist until nearly the entire population of residents at the facility had become infected with COVID-19.”
Another defendant, James Gammett, of Nevada, is identified in the lawsuit as the owner of Sweetwater Care Opco and a managing partner of Sweetwater Investment Management, who allegedly diverted income intended to improve the operation of Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation Center and instead channeled money, “directly or indirectly through other shell entities, to Sweetwater Investment Management” and himself, the lawsuit states.
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