CVN screenshot of plaintiff attorney Zoe Littlepage, left, and defense attorney Dana Fox, right, delivering their opening statements
Santa Ana, CA - Some of the country’s top personal injury attorneys met in a California state courtroom on Wednesday as opening statements began in a premises liability trial over a child’s near drowning in a hotel hot tub, and the proceedings are being webcast gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
Texas-based attorneys Zoe Littlepage of Athea Trial Lawyers and Littlepage Booth Leckman and Charla Aldous of Athea Trial Lawyers and Aldous Walker LLP gave opening statements on behalf of Angelique Anderson, whose daughter, Journey Hudson, allegedly suffered severe brain damage after fainting in an overheated hot tub at a Howard Johnson hotel in Anaheim, California.
The hotel is represented by Dana Fox of Lewis Brisbois, who serves as co-chair of the defense giant’s general liability practice and is considered one of the go-to trial attorneys in the state for high-exposure personal injury cases. The hotel denies all liability for the accident and argues Hudson’s brain damage resulted from a pre-existing viral infection and lack of supervision from her mother.
The trial, taking place in Orange County Superior Court before Judge Craig Griffin, is being webcast and recorded gavel-to-gavel by CVN.
The trial stems from an accident in 2015, when Hudson, who was six at the time, and her family stayed at the Howard Johnson during a trip to Disneyland. After being left alone in a hot tub in the hotel’s water park, Hudson was found face down and not breathing. She was resuscitated and taken to a nearby hospital, but not before suffering a severe brain injury that Littlepage said during her opening statement cost Hudson 58 IQ points and left her in a state of being a “forever child.”
“This is a case about a hotel that put profits over safety,” Littlepage told the jury, according to CVN’s webcast of the proceedings. “The hotels’ decisions about this children’s waterpark were negligent.”
Littlepage described how the accident took place in a hot tub originally installed in 1965 that had been left in place when the Howard Johnson built a children’s water park in the early 2000’s in order to attract more business from families.
She argued that there were over 50 code violations in the waterpark, that the hot tub wasn’t in any way barricaded to prevent children from accessing it, that there were no trained lifeguards on site, and that the park wasn’t adequately monitored by cameras.
“This is a company that decided to cut corners,” Littlepage said.
She described the hot tub as a “runaway hot tub” - telling jurors that guidelines call for hot tubs used by children to have a temperature setting of 95-98 degrees. She claimed this hot tub had a temperature setting of 102, and that on the day of the accident the water temperature climbed to between 106 and 109 degrees.
“The evidence is going to show that children are uniquely susceptible to hot water.”
Littlepage told jurors that the only supervision in the waterpark that morning consisted of a lone 18-year-old attendant who was new to the job. As a consequence, she said Hudson suffered severe burns and increased body temperature from lying on hot concrete as bystanders performed CPR on her, since there were no lifeguards present to place Hudson on a backboard.
Aldous told jurors that Hudson’s mother observed the hot tub with the jets off before allowing Journey to enter it, and that she thought it worked like other hot tub’s she was familiar with where the temperature doesn’t begin to rise until the jets activate, suggesting the accident involved some shared responsibility.
Neither Littlepage nor Aldous asked for a specific amount of damages during openings, but Littlepage detailed how Hudson’s initial injuries required her to spend 54 days in various hospitals and rehab facilities and that she will never live an independent life, lacking the cognitive abilities to perform simple tasks like cross a street by herself or make change, suggesting potential damages extend well into the millions of dollars.
In his opening on behalf of Howard Johnson, Fox forcefully disputed the idea of any shared responsibility for Hudson’s injuries.
“The hotel has no liability for this accident, lest there be any confusion where I’m coming from,” Fox said.
He rejected the idea the case was about putting profits over safety, characterizing that description as a “marketing buzz phrase.”
Fox told jurors that the hotel had three separate systems to control the water temperature in the hot tub, and that “nobody is contending that any of that equipment malfunctioned.”
He maintained that Hudson spent 2-4 minutes under water in the hot tub, longer than the plaintiffs allege, and that the duration was due to lack of supervision from Hudson’s mother. He described to jurors the presence of a large sign reading “no lifeguard on duty” outside the entrance to the water park, and another sign saying that children under the age of 16 must be supervised by an adult.
“There was no sign that said staff at the water playground would be responsible for taking care of her child or watching her child,” Fox said.
Fox also disputed the supposed temperature in the hot tub, which he said is the result of a flawed analysis by a consultant hired by the plaintiffs and not an actual temperature test of the water on the day of the accident.
Fox described to jurors Hudson’s recent contraction of hand foot and mouth disease, which he said she caught from a sleepover with friends and that could in severe cases cause swelling of the brain. He said brain scans taken in the immediate aftermath of the near-drowning incident did not show any injuries consistent with trauma.
“The doctors suspected this was auto-immune encephalitis,” he said.
Both sides repeatedly emphasized the testimony from their retained expert witnesses, which will make up a large portion of the trial, which is currently scheduled to last until mid-May.
Hudson is also represented by Deborah Chang of Athea Trial Lawyers LLP, along with Candice Klein and Sarah Kim of the same firm, in addition to Mark Schenkman and Shawn Lalezary of the Lalezary Law Firm LLP.
The case is captioned Journey Hudson v. Great American Land Company, case number 30-2019-01052572-CU, in the Superior Court of California in Orange County