Marking one of the largest awards to date in a child drowning case, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court jury has ordered $16.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages paid to the family of Jonathan “Yoni” Gottesman.
Yoni drowned at age four on August 15, 2005, his first day of summer camp at Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club in Goleta, Calif.
According to reports, Yoni’s parents, Oded and Anat Gottesman sued the club, its management company, and several individual staff members, including Aquatics Director Esther Clark and two managers.
The complaint charged that lifeguards did not have proper training and the facility did not have mandatory protocols in place.
Expert witness for the plaintiff, Gerald Dworkin, a consultant for aquatic safety and water rescue for Lifesaving Resources, based in Harrisville, N.H., said a key breach in standards occurred when one of the two lifeguards on duty walked away from the pool to get a drink. Dworkin’s investigation also concluded that if guards had been scanning properly, Yoni’s motionless body should have been spotted between 40 and 60 times.
The lifeguard’s CPR training was also called into question, noted Leila J. Noël an attorney for the family, with Cappello &Noël, located in Santa Barbara, Calif. “Yoni had a chance to survive even after he was pulled from the pool, but the staff was not certified in child CPR and attempts at CPR were done improperly,” she stated in a press release.
Additionally, the California Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division determined that Cathedral Oaks was operating the camp without proper licensing, a violation of state statutes.
Jurors found Cathedral Oaks guilty of willful misconduct after attorneys for the Gottesman family presented evidence; including a surveillance video that shows Yoni floating motionless for several minutes while two lifeguards were on duty and at least one camp counselor and several children were swimming nearby.
Earlier in the video, a counselor is seen playing with Yoni, pulling the boy throughout the pool and dunking him several times before leaving him near the middle of the pool; however, it was noted that Yoni had barely passed a swim test earlier that day and as a result was not supposed to leave the shallow end. That information did not reach counselors.
The verdict concludes this round of more than three years of legal battles. A. Barry Cappello, the Gottesmans’ attorney, earlier attempted to file criminal charges against Cathedral Oaks, but the Santa Barbara District Attorney found there was insufficient grounds to do so.
But criminal charges are still a serious legal possibility in other cases, said Dworkin. "I've been involved in several cases where criminal charges were successfully filed,"he noted. "If you breach the stnadards of care you're looking at the potential for criminal charges.
The Gottesmans’ have also sued Cathedral Oaks alleging the private club fraudulently conveyed assets. A hearing in that case is scheduled for next month.