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Second Poisoning Death Prompts Suit Against San Mateo Assisted Living Facility

A second Atria Park resident in San Mateo, one of three who unknowingly drank cleaning fluid served to them as cranberry juice back in August, has died.

His family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit accusing the assisted living facility, Atria Park of San Mateo, of understaffing, elder abuse and negligence.

Peter Schroder Jr. celebrated his 93rd birthday in February at the Atria Park facility. Six months later, the retired U.S. Air Force chaplain had plans to spend the afternoon of Aug. 27 with his daughter, Susan.

“He was really looking forward to our outing,” she recalled. “He put on a really good-looking outfit in anticipation of us driving down to Los Altos, because he established a church there.”

But the outing never happened. That morning, Schroder, along with two other residents of Atria Park, was rushed to the hospital after drinking caustic alkaline cleaner served as cranberry juice.

“His lips were blistered and bleeding and his mouth looked like somebody had asked him to swallow a firecracker,” Susan Schroder said. “It was devastating to see him like that.”

Peter Schroder was in the hospital for a dozen days, barely able to speak. He was able to tell his daughter he loved her, but was enduring what doctors told Susan was increasing agony. “He was in so much discomfort – I was glad that they let me sleep in his room for the last two days, and I was with him when he passed.”

Susan Schroder remembered her father as an adventurous soul who studied chemistry but became a pastor instead. He founded Immanuel Lutheran church in Los Altos in 1954 before going on to become an Air Force chaplain, serving in Okinawa at the time of the Vietnam War.

“I feel like I was robbed,” Susan Schroder said. “No one knows how long they have to live…but he enjoyed life…and I just feel like that was all taken away.”

Schroder’s family has filed a lawsuit against Atria alleging negligence and elder abuse in his Sept. 7 death.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative unit previously reported that a kitchen worker poured the bright red Ecolab-brand cleaner into a pitcher, for later use in cleaning. But the worker became distracted, according to investigators. The suit alleges the worker was called to deal with a disruption in the dining room.

“There were not enough caregivers to handle the ‘disruption,’” the suit states. After that, another worker unknowingly brought out the pitcher left behind and served the cleaning fluid as cranberry juice, investigators say. One of the residents who drank the fluid was 93-year-old Trudy Maxwell, who died within days.

Kathryn Stebner, the lawyer who filed the Schroder family’s suit and who has sued the Atria Park facility in the past, said that it has chronic problems with staffing.

“Atria understaffed so it can make more of a profit,” she said, adding what happened to Peter Schroder “is a good example of having a bunch of people, this many people with dementia, in one room and not enough people to keep them safe.”

Atria Senior Living issued a statement on Thursday, saying: “We continue working with authorities and the Department of Social Services to fully review and assess the incident. The safety and well-being of our residents remain our top priority at all times. Our hearts remain with the residents affected, their families, and loved ones.”

In an earlier statement after Trudy Maxwell’s death, Atria said employees involved had been suspended while it did its own probe. The company promised that following that assessment, “we will take additional actions as needed.”

San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office is now reviewing the completed police probe to determine whether to pursue elder abuse or other charges. “Because people died,” he said, “this case gives us a major concern about what’s going on.”

The investigation is focused on the kitchen worker who allegedly poured the cleaner into the juice pitcher, he said, but others involved may also face scrutiny. “We’re going to give it a very close look to make sure that what occurred there, to find out whether it involved criminal behavior — if it did, we have no tolerance for that.”

Meanwhile, Susan Schroder said that she’s preparing to bury her father next to his wife, near Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery.

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