State sues Fort Worth assisted living facility over faulty sprinkler system

Posted Monday, Jun. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Disabled and elderly residents who lived at the Westchester Plaza high rise in 2012 allegedly did not have a working sprinkler system for eight months although management knew the system was broken and refused to fix it until ordered to do so by the state.

The Texas attorney general’s office is suing Westchester Plaza, an assisted-living facility, along with its management company and Brian Jeffrey Bryant, president of Phoenix Health Resources Inc., alleging that false information was provided to the state consumer protection division and that management ignored a fire marshal’s tag stating that the fire safety pumps were broken.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Tarrant County civil court on behalf of the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), by the attorney general’s office also seeks permanent injunctions to prevent Bryant and Westchester’s management company from managing and operating other assisted-living facilities in Texas. The suit also accuses Westchester Plaza management of violating the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and seeks civil penalties of up to $1 million.

John Shackleford, a Dallas attorney listed as the agent for Westchester Prime Management and WGH Heritage Inc., did not return phone calls from the Star-Telegram seeking comment.

However, Bryant said his company will contest the lawsuit and that the Westchester always had fire protection.

“We have documentation to the attorney general’s office proving we had sprinkler coverage in the entire building. The building was never without sprinkler coverage,” Bryant said.

Westchester Plaza is still open, but its license is in limbo, as DADS recommended that it should not be renewed in October 2012 because of the fire safety violations and placing residents in “immediate” danger.

Melissa Gale, a spokeswoman for the agency, said that Westchester management appealed the state’s recommendation, but a hearing hasn’t been held yet on whether the facility will lose its license. Gale said the license is still valid until a decision is made by the Health and Human Services Commission.

According to court documents, around 200 residents — some of whom were paralyzed and were in apartments on upper floors — lived at the Westchester Plaza in 2012 during the time when the sprinkler system was broken during a freeze in winter 2011-12.

According to court documents, the residents were without fire protection for eight months — from Jan. 1 to Aug. 9, 2012.

The state alleges that management failed to repair the sprinklers although there were inquiries from the consumer protection division of the attorney general’s office and fire marshal’s citations. It is estimated that the repairs would have cost less than $3,000.

The company that manufactured the sprinkler system also issued a noncompliance tag in June 2012, but still no repairs were made until Aug. 8, when DADS investigators saw the noncompliance tag and ordered the fire protection system to be fixed immediately, according to court documents,

Marketing brochures from 2012 advertised false information about the facility, saying that “the prestigious, high rise address for assisted living in Fort Worth” promising “luxurious assisted living” in a facility with a “complete fire sprinkler system,” according to court documents,

DADS referred the matter to the attorney general for further investigation. There are also allegations that Westchester management knowingly submitted false documents and written statements about the sprinkler system to the attorney general’s consumer protection division investigators.

In fact, the lawsuit stated that Bryant denied that the sprinkler system was ever broken in his written statement to investigators and also denied that it was a danger or threat to residents.

“It’s like a bad doorknob or anything else. I mean, we fix everything eventually,” Bryant was quoted as telling investigators, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2013, an early morning fire forced the residents out of their apartments, and one resident was taken to an area hospital after suffering minor smoke inhalation. But the fire, which started in a common area on the fourth floor, was doused by the building’s sprinkler system.

Fire officials reported that the residents were kept in the lobby because of cold weather and that 30 fire units were called to the scene because the building is a high rise and required evacuations.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz

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