It is likely the largest sum awarded in a child’s wrongful death suit in Santa Barbara County history and 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 does that price tag adequately compensate for the life of four-year-old Yoni Gottesman, who drowned in a Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club swimming pool in 2005? The emotional toll paid by the child’s parents must be immeasurable. His father, Oded, when he arrived at the scene of the incident, wasn’t told how serious Yoni’s injuries were, but was instead told to follow an ambulance to the hospital. His mother, Anat, couldn’t watch as a video surveillance tape was played at the trial over and over and over, showing Yoni being dunked in the pool by a camp counselor, then floating for eight minutes in the water while kids played around him and lifeguards didn’t see him.
The $16 million sum aims to redress the pain of a mother and father who mostly wanted to hear “I’m sorry,” but it also took into account the remorse of Cathedral Oaks personnel, who admitted that their negligence led to Yoni’s drowning but who 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 lived through. Many couples don’t make it through such a tragedy. “This family had to fight to hold themselves together,” explained Barry Cappello, the Gottesmans’ attorney. 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 or maybe even 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 added that a primary goal of a foundation in Yoni’s name will be to ensure businesses are not putting profit above protection.
Area 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 them at more than $2 million, while the defendants and former Cathedral Oaks owner Richard Berti put them 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, concluded that there had been “clear and convincing evidence” that Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club, club manager Julie Main, manager Charlotte Valentine, and aquatics director Esther Clark acted with malice, oppression, and fraud, which led to the punitive damages award. 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 the 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 codefendant 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, referring to the day Yoni died.
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 the club was running the way it should. “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 in which 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 paying 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 they emerged victorious in their three-year fight to get the word out about what happened to Yoni and to hold accountable those at fault for his death; that hopefully, as a result of their fight, no other family will have to endure such a terrible, tragic experience.