Maya Kowalski can be heard sobbing as she leaves a Sarasota County courtroom in the closing scenes of “Take Care of Maya”, a Netflix documentary about how her mother took her own life after Maya was removed by the state and sheltered at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
The Venice family’s request for a jury trial had just been stayed by an appeals court, a further delay to a lawsuit the surviving Kowalskis filed in 2018 against the St. Petersburg hospital that twice reported Beata Kowalski to the state’s abuse hotline in 2016 after she brought her then 10-year-old daughter to the emergency room.
Beata Kowalski, who was 43, died by suicide after 87 days without physical contact with her daughter. Allegations of child medical abuse were never proven.
On Thursday, almost five years after the lawsuit was filed, the civil trial the family has long sought will finally get underway at the South County Courthouse in Venice. There is much at stake for All Children’s in a case expected to take up to eight weeks.
In addition to damages, Judge Hunter Carroll has ruled that the jury can consider awarding punitive damages for battery and false imprisonment of Maya if it finds in the family’s favor. Media reports say the Kowalskis are suing for $55 million in compensatory damages and $165 million in punitive damages. Their attorney, Nick Whitney, would not confirm those amounts but said they are “in the ballpark.”
During the girl’s stay at the hospital, she was videotaped for 48 hours and, on another occasion, stripped down to her underwear and photographed without the permission of her parents or the dependency court, according to court records. Hospital employees also refused to let Maya’s parents take their daughter to another hospital before the state intervened, according to the lawsuit.
Catherine Bedy, a former All Children’s hospital social worker who took part in the photographing of Maya, is also named as a defendant in the case. In Carroll’s order allowing punitive damages, he wrote there were several episodes where Bedy “kissed, stroked or placed the child on her lap.”
“Quite simply, Catherine Bedy repeatedly battered (Maya)‚” Carroll wrote, adding that the hospital’s risk management office knew about her behavior, directed it and repeatedly allowed her to interact with the child.
Attorneys for All Children’s declined to comment ahead of the trial. But lawyer Ethen Shapiro in June said the hospital stands by its decision. Their defense is expected to center on the hospital employees’ status as mandatory reporters required by state law to call the abuse hotline if they have “reasonable cause” to suspect child abuse. The decision to shelter Maya at the hospital was not made by the hospital but by the state’s child welfare system.
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After the Netflix documentary first aired in June, Maya’s story made international headlines with accounts appearing in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the United Kingdom’s Guardian and Independent newspapers and People magazine. It also sparked a backlash against All Children’s, with the hospital facing a barrage of condemnation on some of its social media posts.
The publicity generated by the documentary has also raised concerns about assembling an impartial jury. The judge in the case recently agreed to the hospital’s request that jury pool members who have seen the program will have to be questioned individually so as not to influence other potential jurors.
It means that jury selection could take up to a week or more, said Whitney.
“We’d rather not have it be this way,” he said. “But it’s probably helpful to eliminate one possible appellate issue.”
Maya’s story has also raised questions about the Florida Department of Children’s role in her story.
The second report to the abuse hotline was made after Sally Smith, the child protective medical director for Pinellas, conducted an investigation into Maya’s medical background.
Smith was employed by Suncoast Center, a nonprofit contracted by the Florida Department of Health. She and the nonprofit, who were originally named as defendants in the lawsuit, settled with the Kowalski family for $2.5 million, according to a story in The Cut.
Smith retired in July 2022.