Warning: This story contains graphic photos
SAN MATEO, Calif. (KRON) — An elderly San Mateo man died a slow, painful death after an employee of his senior care facility served him a glass of red “heavy duty” bathroom cleaner, according to a newly-filed lawsuit.
The wrongful death civil lawsuit accuses Atria Park of San Mateo senior assisted living facility, along with its managers Jennifer Duenas and Kris Walusko, of neglecting and abusing its frail and vulnerable residents to maximize profits.
Three Atria Park residents, 93-year-old Peter Schroder, 93-year-old Gertrude Elizabeth Murison Maxwell and 94-year-old Constantine Canoun, died from suspected poisonings within the same week at two different locations.
Canoun’s family said Atria Park of Walnut Creek employees tried to attribute his death to eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Canoun’s son said his father in fact died from drinking cleaning solution on August 23.
“These kinds of injuries that my dad suffered in no way shape or form can be caused by Flaming Hot Cheetos,” Cary Canoun said. His father, who suffers from dementia, was eating lunch in a dining hall unattended when he consumed the cleaning fluid, according to his family.
Just three days after the poisoning at Atria Park’s Walnut Creek assisted living facility, a second poisoning happened at its San Mateo facility.
Schroder, who also suffered from dementia, enjoyed drinking cranberry juice for breakfast each morning in the dining room. On August 26, Schroder was sitting in the dining room when an employee poured a pitcher of red liquid into his glass.
The lawsuit states, “(Schroder) had no reason to believe that the liquid poured into his juice glass by defendants’ employee was not cranberry juice. However … instead of cranberry juice, defendant’s employee poured a highly toxic cleaner and disinfectant into (his) glass.”
The facility’s security video showed a kitchen employee using the chemical Ecolab 66 — “a heavy duty bathroom cleaner and disinfectant” — to clean, the lawsuit states. “The chemical comes in a large container, and the worker decided to pour some into a smaller jug.”
The employee left the pitcher on a kitchen counter to handle a disruption in the dining room.
“Due to the lack of sufficient staffing at the facility, the kitchen worker who was using the cleaner had to leave the kitchen and go into the dining room because there were not enough caregivers to handle the disruption,” the Schroder family’s attorney, Karman Guadagni, wrote.
A second employee who was tasked with serving breakfast saw the pitcher on the kitchen counter, placed it on the breakfast serving counter in the dining room, and a third employee began pouring the red liquid into elderly residents’ glasses, according to the lawsuit.
Three residents drank the poisonous liquid, including Schroder and 93-year-old Gertrude Elizabeth Murison Maxwell, and suddenly became ill, according to the suit and family members. After one resident began screaming in the dining room, the poisoned residents were rushed to a San Mateo hospital.
Schroder’s daughter, Susan Schroder, said her father was in “extreme pain” and bleeding. The poisonous liquid reaches maximum potency in three to five days after being ingested.
Maxwell died at the hospital. Peter Schroder suffered for 14 days in the hospital before he died on September 7.
Maxwell’s family told KRON4 that the substance was an “alkaline cleaning solution that eats protein.” Maxwell couldn’t feed herself, suffered from dementia, and would have needed assistance to drink the poisonous liquid from a glass, according to her family. “You have to hold a cup to her mouth and tip it into her mouth,” one family member said.
Maxwell is survived by her eight children and 20 grandchildren.
Atria Senior Living issued a statement to KRON4 on Friday that claims the red liquid was dishwashing soap, not bathroom cleaner.
Atria Senior Living wrote, “Our ongoing internal investigation determined that an Atria Park of San Mateo staff member filled a pitcher with dishwashing liquid that has a nearly identical consistency and color to cranberry juice, with the intention of dispensing the liquid into a commercial dishwashing machine. This was a violation of our policies and procedures. Another staff member picked it up, mistaking it for juice, and served it to three residents.”
The company added, “The safety and well-being of our residents remain our top priority at all times.”
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Peter Schroder lived at the facility for nearly one year before his death. During that time, he suffered several serious falls and injuries due to neglectful care and insufficient staff, according to the lawsuit.
“Jennifer Duenas and Kris Walusko recklessly and egregiously failed to adequately staff and train their employees in their facility,” Guadagni wrote. “Defendants knew that, according to their plan to increase profits at the expense of residents … the operation of the facility was neither designed, administered, nor funded in a manner reasonably necessary to provide care, oversight and integration of (Schroder).”
“Defendants’ reckless and egregious acts and omissions, as described herein, caused decedent’s severe and painful injuries and death,” Guadagni wrote.
The lawsuit also points out Constantine Canoun’s disturbingly-similar cause of death at the Walnut Creek facility. His stomach and esophagus injuries “were consistent with drinking cleaning fluid, not eating Hot Cheetos. This is a pattern by defendants and is reckless and egregious,” Guadagni wrote.
In the aftermath of Canoun’s death, Atria Senior Living sent a prepared statement to KRON4 writing, “On the night of August 23, 2022, a resident at the Atria Walnut Creek community appeared to suffer a negative reaction. We are completing our internal investigation and await the official cause of death. The staff members involved have been suspended in the meantime. The health and safety of our residents are our highest priorities.”
Atria Senior Living is a company that supports more than 200 locations nationwide. Atria operates three facilities in the East Bay and five across the South Bay and Peninsula.
Atria Park of San Mateo’s website describes its culinary approach as, “Wholesome food made from fresh, seasonal ingredients served with a side of lively conversation makes dining all the more delightful. Life at Atria means eating well, every day.”
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in San Mateo County Superior Court on September 16 against Atria Park of San Mateo, Atria Management Company, Duenas, and Waluszko. The suit was filed on behalf of Peter Schroder’s two children, Susan and Paul Schroder.
“Our ongoing internal investigation determined that an Atria Park of San Mateo staff member filled a pitcher with dishwashing liquid that has a nearly identical consistency and color to cranberry juice, with the intention of dispensing the liquid into a commercial dishwashing machine. This was a violation of our policies and procedures. Another staff member picked it up, mistaking it for juice, and served it to three residents.”
On Friday a spokesperson for Atria Senior Living said the company is working with authorities and the Department of Social Services to fully review and assess the incidents.