"I obviously wish that Hunter was not underwater for six minutes. Of course I wish that."--Kelli Salyer, of Just People Inc., an organization for mentally disabled adults, when questioned about why her facility's pool was unsupervised during a pool party in which Hunter Fellers died.
Periodically CVN will delve into the crucial moments of key trials, highlighting the turning points that helped swing the verdict in each case.
The trial: Mary Fellers v. Just People Inc.
The turning point: A security video showing Hunter Fellers, a mentally disabled adult who suffered from seizures, underwater for six minutes at an unsupervised pool party organized by Just People Inc., an organization that assists people with mental disabilities.
The result: A $2.022 million verdict for the plaintiff, Mary Fellers.
Hunter Fellers, a mentally disabled man at a facility owned by Just People Inc., died after allegedly suffering a seizure while in the facility's pool during a party involving more than 40 other mentally disabled residents. Security video showed Fellers’ body remained submerged for more than 6 minutes after he allegedly suffered the seizure, as other residents swam without staff supervision.
In a suit against the organization, Mary Fellers' attorneys, Fried Rogers Goldberg's Michael Goldberg and Andrew Goldner, of the Lw Offices of Andrew Goldner, claimed the facility was negligent in failing to supervise the pool party. The attorneys framed the case for the jury with three questions, including:
Should someone watch the pool to make sure no one is injured or drowns when having a pool party with 45 mentally handicapped individuals, including many who have seizure disorders?
Early in the case, Goldberg questioned Kelli Salyer, a representative for Just People, walking her through the security video.
Salyer acknowledged the facility did not assign a staff member to supervise the pool and acknowledged supervision may have minimized the risk of drowning. When asked the question Goldberg presented to the jury—whether someone should watch the pool—she answered:
"(The question) is too vague for the description of Just People. The people in Just People are very high functioning, married, graduates from college, very capable, people who drive, all of those people that you’re talking about, you can’t put them in a sentence that says '45 mentally handicapped individuals' because they’re better than that. And so I’m not going to answer that specifically, other than no. No, the answer is no.
'If there’s 45 drunk people at a pool party, would it be better if someone was watching them? Yeah. If there’s 10 children in a pool and there’s 100 people in a pool, is it better there’s someone watching them? Yes. So, yes, it would be better if someone was watching, but that’s not the type of pool that we had, or have, and it is not the type of service that we provide.”
The video, backed by Salyer's response to Goldberg's questions, served as keys to the $2 million verdict. “It’s really difficult to sit and watch that video while you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Somebody needs to be pulling this guy out of the water.’ And even though it’s six minutes and 22 seconds he’s underwater, it feels like an eternity,” Goldberg said in an interview with CVN after the trial. “I think once (jurors) saw that video, we were really far ahead in getting a verdict in our favor.”
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