Cathedral Oaks Loses Wrongful Death Suit

Family Awarded $16 Million in Child's Drowning

More than likely, it is the largest child wrongful death verdict in Santa Barbara County history, perhaps the highest total in a drowning case ever in the state’s history: $13.8 million in compensatory damages, along with another $2.3 million in punitive damages.

But who can really put a price on the loss of beloved four-year-old Yoni Gottesman, who died by drowning in a Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club swimming pool in 2005? Or the pain of his father, Oded, who, when he arrived at the scene of the incident, wasn’t told how serious his son’s injuries were, but told to follow an ambulance to the hospital.

The pain of a mother who couldn’t watch as a video surveillance tape was played at the trial over and over and over: Her son Yoni being dunked by a camp counselor, then floating for eight minutes in the pool while kids played around him and lifeguards sat, not seeing him.

Anat and Oded Gottesman leave the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse after a jury awarded $2.3 million for punitive damages in the wrongful death of their son Yoni.
Paul Wellman

The pain of a mother and father who mostly wanted to hear, “I’m sorry.”

Or, for that matter, the pain of Cathedral Oaks personnel, who admitted that their negligence led to Yoni’s dying, yet who certainly had no intention of contributing to a child’s death.

Undoubtedly, these past three-and-a-half years have been the most difficult the Gottesmans have ever had to live through. Many couples don’t make it through such a tragedy. “This family had to fight to hold themselves together,” Gottesman attorney Barry Cappello said.

But they did, and they hope that, even with appeals and future court dates that will keep this money out of their hands for months, maybe years, the message has been sent loud and clear. “It’s one step in the right direction. Whatever is necessary to make Santa Barbara safer,” said Oded Gottesman, who said a primary goal of a foundation in Yoni’s name will be to ensure businesses are not putting profit above protection.

Local pool staffers have already taken notice, as the incident has been a topic of discussion at more than one area swimming hole, and managers are taking greater steps to ensure lifeguards are up-to-date on their training.

These sorts of cases don’t usually make it to trial, as the sides usually come to a settlement agreement. But the Gottesmans weren’t interested in settling. Instead, they wanted to find out what happened to Yoni and they wanted that story to be told.

After hearing confusing testimony about the assets of Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club, Inc.-Cappello put the assets at more than $2 million, the defendants and former Cathedral Oaks owner Richard Berti put it at closer to $55,000- the jury deliberated for just a few hours on Wednesday, April 29, before rendering its decision on the amount of punitive damages.

A day earlier, the jury, citing a disregard for children’s safety, had concluded that there had been “clear and convincing evidence” that Cathedral Oaks, Cathedral Oaks manager Julie Main, manager Charlotte Valentine, and aquatics director Esther Clark acted with malice, oppression, and fraud, which led to the punitive damages award. Also on Tuesday, the jury of nine women and three men decided to award the Gottesmans more than $13.8 million in compensatory damages for the loss of love and companionship of their son, as well as funeral and burial costs.

The Gottesmans sat together through every day of the emotionally charged trial, which began at the end of March, listening to testimony and evidence about a club whose lifeguards and counselors weren’t properly trained, and which ran a children’s day camp that wasn’t licensed with the state. Despite being notified of previous, near-drowning incidents at the pool, managers and owners did nothing to change the club’s safety operations.

During an interview following the verdict, Richard Berti, who owns Cal-West, a co-defendant in the case because it provided financial oversight for the athletic club, said that he wished the Gottesmans “peace in their tremendous loss” and said he would like to meet with them. He said that while he attended services following Yoni’s death, the Gottesmans refused to speak with him unless he admitted guilt. “I wasn’t there,” Berti said.

Berti added that he was advised not to say much after lawyers got involved in the incident. But after the verdict, he said there was a breakdown in the process of making sure all the ducks were in a row at the club. “We thought we had people beneath us that knew what was correct,” Berti said. “Something fell apart.”

This isn’t the end of the road for Berti or the Gottesmans. Besides the expected appeals of the verdict, still to come is a trial where Cappello-who has butted heads in civil court with Berti in the past-will attempt to show a different jury that Berti fraudulently transferred assets to avoid payment for damages. Shortly after Yoni’s death, Berti and his business partner sold Cathedral Oaks, Inc. to Main and her business partner for cheap. Prior to the start of the wrongful death trial, Judge Thomas Anderle chose to split the two issues into separate trials.

For now the Gottesmans can begin to move ahead, knowing that their fight of the past three years, to get the word out about what happened and to hold accountable those at fault for death of their son, was successful; that hopefully, as a result of their fight, no other family will have to endure such a terrible, tragic experience.


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