by KATHERINE WUTZ
Scott Burpee, CEO of Safe Haven Health Care, said last week that he plans to build a private 80-bed assisted-living and skilled-nursing facility in Bellevue by early 2013, a facility that Blaine County commissioners have said could be the solution to the county's senior-care dilemma. As he proceeds, Burpee is downplaying the significance of a series of settled lawsuits that include allegations of negligence and wrongful death against his former company—and allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him personally.
Burpee, as former owner and CEO of Valley Vista Care Corp., settled three cases in the past 10 years. The court complaints are matters of public record, and the case history was brought to county commissioners' attention after it was submitted by concerned citizens to County Administrator Derek Voss.
County Commissioners Angenie McCleary and Larry Schoen said they are aware of the three cases but that the lawsuits had not been brought up in public meetings because Burpee had not yet made an application to the county to build a facility.
"I do agree that the subject of each of these court cases is quite serious," Schoen said. "It's a nasty sounding situation. [But] we are still in the early stages of figuring out how to ensure that skilled nursing care is provided. I have no idea if Safe Haven is going to build a facility in Blaine County or not."
McCleary, who as chair sets the board's agenda, said the cases require consideration, but possibly not at the moment.
"It was definitely a red flag," she said. "But I thought rather than doing anything with it, since we don't have a proposal, we don't need to put it on the agenda. Certainly, I would want to discuss it if we received a proposal."
Commissioner Tom Bowman was taking time off work and could not be reached for comment as of press time Tuesday.
Burpee and Safe Haven operate seven assisted-living facilities in the state, including one in Bellevue, as well as a hospital and skilled-nursing facility in Pocatello. State court records contain no reference to litigation against Safe Haven.
Cases against Valley Vista
The first complaint against Valley Vista Care Corp. was filed in 1997, and involved the death of a resident at the St. Maries Valley Vista Care Center in northern Idaho. The son of former center resident Delbert L. Hayward alleged that his 85-year-old father had died as a result of negligence after administration of the drug Haldol, an anti-psychotic that in this case caused swallowing paralysis and aspiration of vomit or saliva.
According to the archives of The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, a jury awarded the family $18 million before post-trial negotiations reduced the settlement to $3.5 million in 2006.
Burpee said the trajectory of the case was determined by his company's insurance carriers, which brokered the settlement.
The second case involved Sabine Hentschke, a 41-year-old resident of the Valley Vista Care Center in Sandpoint, Idaho, whose guardian filed a suit alleging that Hentschke had been "sexually assaulted and battered" on two occasions by another resident of the center.
The case, which Burpee called a "nuisance lawsuit," was settled out of court. Court records indicate that Hentschke remained a resident of the facility at the time of the suit.
The third case involved Burpee and Theresa Brandvold, a former employee of Valley Vista Care in St. Maries who accused Burpee of sexual harassment and assault. Brandvold alleged that Burpee pressured her into unwanted sexual activity while threatening her job security.
Though the complaint describes sexual encounters between Burpee and Brandvold in graphic detail, and the case was followed by Burpee's leaving Valley Vista Care Corp., Burpee said the accounts were greatly exaggerated and the settlement was made by Valley Vista as a co-defendant, not him personally.
"I maintained my innocence," Burpee said.
He said the case was greatly "sensationalized" by the plaintiff in an attempt to obtain a larger award, and while he could not reveal details, said that the plaintiff's attorney in the case was the same as in the Hayward case.
"There was a little bit of targeting there," he said. "I think people are trying to make more out of this than there is."
In response to claims that he was fired as CEO following the alleged sexual harassment, Burpee said he left willingly.
"I chose to leave," he said. "It was an [amicable] separation [and] I'm sorry people feel they have to sensationalize it."
CEO: Suits are part of business
Nursing-home litigation is not unusual on a national level. In 1999, the American Journal of Law and Medicine stated that nursing-home litigation is the fastest-growing area of health-care litigation in the country. According to the American Association for Justice, a national organization of trial lawyers, 20,673 nursing-home abuse complaints were filed in 2003. A 2001 congressional report stated that one out of every three nursing homes has been cited in an abuse complaint.
"If you're going to be in health care, you're going to get lawsuits," Burpee said in an interview. "It's not a reflection of anything except these things happen. It's just the way it goes."
Last week, Burpee announced that he and his associates had reached an agreement to purchase a 30-acre parcel of land in the Bellevue area on which he hopes to start construction of a private senior-care facility before the end of the year. Part of the land is in Bellevue and part of it is in Blaine County.
Burpee said he plans to annex the county land into Bellevue and put his development proposal before the city. In that case, county commissioners would not have jurisdiction over the development, and would have to decide whether they think Burpee's project addresses the county's needs or whether they want to muster support for another project, such as the proposed nonprofit Croy Canyon Ranch. That facility, planned for a site in Croy Canyon west of Hailey, is not yet funded.
Burpee said he is in the process of raising funds for his project.
"We're going full-steam ahead on our deal," he said.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com
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