The family of a teenager, who was at the centre of the Netflix documentary Take Care of Maya, has been awarded millions of dollars of damages in a lawsuit brought against a hospital that wrongfully kept her from her relatives after the institution was found liable on multiple abuse charges.
Maya Kowalski, now 17, and her family sued the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the Department of Children and Families for more than $200m when her mother took her own life after doctors at the hospital accused her of Munchausen-by-proxy.
On Thursday jurors found John Hopkins liable on all counts, including those of false imprisonment, battery and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on both Maya and her mother, Beata Kowalski.
Maya and members of her family wept loudly in the courtroom as the verdicts were returned. They were awarded damages of over $200m and the jury later awarded the family a further $50m in punitive damages.
The Kowalski family alleged that the doctors accused her of faking symptoms of complex regional pain syndrome.
The then-nine-year-old was separated from her family with her mother being denied access to her daughter for 87 days while she was investigated for child abuse. The case ended tragically with Beata dying by suicide.
Following the verdict, defence counsel Howard Hunter, an attorney from Hill Ward Henderson who represented Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in this case said they intended to pursue an appeal “based on clear and prejudicial errors throughout the trial and deliberate conduct by plaintiff’s counsel that misled the jury.”
“The evidence clearly showed that Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital followed Florida’s mandatory reporting law in reporting suspected child abuse and, when those suspicions were confirmed by the district court, fully complied with Department of Children and Families (DCF) and court orders,” Mr Hunter said in a statement.
“We are determined to defend the vitally important obligation of mandatory reporters to report suspected child abuse and protect the smallest and most vulnerable among us.
“The facts and the law remain on our side, and we will continue to defend the lifesaving and compassionate care provided to Maya Kowalski by the physicians, nurses and staff of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the responsibility of all mandatory reporters in Florida to speak up if they suspect child abuse.”
During the two-month-long civil trial, the court heard how the family’s nightmare began after Maya was brought to an emergency room at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in October 2016 to seek help for complex regional pain syndrome, a rare and debilitating disease.
Maya had been undergoing ketamine infusion therapy for a year to treat the symptoms, her family said.
But when Beata, a nurse, arrived at the hospital and insisted her daughter be given more ketamine, doctors became suspicious and contacted a child abuse hotline.
A state judge and Florida’s Department of Children and Families later sided with doctors who suspected Beata was suffering from Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome, a psychological disorder where parents fabricate their child’s illness.
Maya was ordered to be held in the hospital by the judge and was prevented from seeing her mother. After 87 days, Beata took her own life at the age of 43.
During the trial, the Kowalskis’ lawyer Greg Anderson argued that Maya was “falsely imprisoned and battered, she was denied communication with her family,” according to Fox13.
Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital repeatedly denied the allegations and insisted that they meant no harm to Ms Kowalski.
The hospital’s lawyer Howard Hunter told the court that hospital staff acted “reasonably and prudently” to treat a “difficult and challenging case”.
He said Ms Kowalski had “challenged” doctors to give Maya a large dose of ketamine, which was not approved for children.
Mr Hunter added that doctors were also suspicious that Maya’s symptoms were being “fostered and encouraged by the mother”.
“The evidence will show you that All Children’s Hospital was not trying to imprison this young lady. We were trying to get her stabilised and transferred to somewhere where she could get the help she needed ... Once the court entered an order that she was to be sheltered under [Department of Children and Families], All Children’s could not discharge her without court approval … We are going to ask you to avoid conflating what was ordered by the court with what was done by the hospital,” Mr Hunter said in his opening statement.
However, Mr Anderson argued that the hospital’s assessment that Kowalski was a danger to her child was wrong because Maya “did not come in with a bruise, bump, cut, scrape, or any bad medical tests”.
Taking the stand, now 17-year-old Maya broke down in tears as she described the time she was kept apart from her family.
The Kowalski family filed the lawsuit against Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the Department of Children and Families seeking $55m in compensatory damages and $165m in punitive damages.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.