A Florida jury ordered a hospital to pay $261 million in damages to a family after the parents were accused of abusing their daughter and preventing her from seeing her during months of treatment. Their story was chronicled in the Netflix documentary “Take Care of Maya.”
Jurors in Florida’s 12th Judicial Circuit in Sarasota County found against Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, court documents released Thursday show, and ordered $211 million in restitution and $50 million in punitive damages for false imprisonment, battery, medical negligence and other charges.
Damages were awarded for emotional distress caused to the daughter in question, Maya Kowalski, and her mother, Beata Kowalski, who died by suicide in 2017. Maya’s father, Jack Kowalski, was named as a plaintiff in the suit representing Maya and his wife’s estate, court documents showed.
“For the first time, I feel like I got justice,” Maya Kowalski, now 17, said in a statement to reporters outside the courtroom after the ruling.
Mr. Kowalski said the case was about parents’ decision-making in the care of their children. “Parents have rights and they make the decision,” he said.
Howard Hunter, an attorney for All Children’s, said the hospital would appeal the ruling. In a statement after the verdict, he said the hospital had followed its protocol for when it suspects child abuse.
“We are determined to defend the vitally important obligation of mandatory reporters to report suspected child abuse and protect the least and most vulnerable among us,” he said.
The story of the Kowalskis was reported in The Cut last year and was the subject of the Netflix documentary “Take Care of Maya.” The film examined Maya’s stay at the hospital from October 7, 2016 to January 13, 2017, and touched on her rare pain syndrome and a system that mandates hospitals to report suspected abuse.
According to the family’s complaint, Maya was 10 years old in 2016 when she was treated at All Children’s Hospital for complex regional pain syndrome.
On Oct. 7, 2016, she was rushed to the emergency room because of her extreme pain, it said. Maya was then evaluated by a child welfare doctor who specialized in detecting child abuse. Subsequently, pursuant to an order issued by the state, she remained in the hospital for about three months despite her family’s attempts to get her out, the complaint said.
While she was there, medical orders included “isolating” her and limiting family visits, the complaint said. It said she was touched against her will or without parental consent and put under video surveillance; her “symptoms worsened: her lesions reappeared, her legs atrophied, she regressed and became wheelchair-bound.”
In a telephone interview Friday, Ethen Shapiro, another attorney representing the hospital, said All Children’s had carried out state orders to limit visits. The Florida Dependency Court, which hears child abuse and neglect cases, limited visitation after ruling on Oct. 14, 2016, that Maya should be sheltered.
“They decided there was a reasonable suspicion of medical child abuse,” he said, adding that the hospital had no discretion over where it could send her after that. “It is not All Children’s Hospital that hinders visits.”
A lawyer for the Kowalskis, Jennifer Anderson, said Maya’s parents had followed the orders of a doctor who had previously treated her for pain syndrome, and the complaint said Ms. Kowalski had experienced “acute stress reaction and grief reaction” after being accused of child abuse and to have his daughter abducted.
“In short, the actions of the defendants and their agents drove both parents, but especially Beata, since she was also accused of abusing her beloved daughter, relentlessly to the most extreme of human behavior,” the complaint read.
Mr. Kowalski was eventually allowed to visit.
In a Jan. 6, 2017, hearing in dependency court, Beata Kowalski saw her daughter in person for the first time since Maya was admitted to All Children’s Hospital, an attorney for the Kowalskis said. Maya was in a wheelchair “and in worse shape” than when she entered the hospital three months earlier.
Less than 48 hours later, Ms. Kowalski took her own life, the complaint said.
The court issued an order on January 13 to discharge Maya Kowalski from the hospital into the custody of her father.
Mrs. Anderson said Friday that the jury’s decision was “vindication for the family and what they went through.”
Mr. Shapiro said he expected the appeals process to start around the end of the year or early 2024. He said the jury award would not be paid until the appeals process is over.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.