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What role did a Netflix documentary play in a jury siding with Maya Kowalski?

The Netflix documentary "Take Care of Maya" told the story of Maya Kowalski and her family's treatment by Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. After making international headlines, a jury awarded the family over $250 million dollars in their civil suit against the hospital.
The Netflix documentary "Take Care of Maya" told the story of Maya Kowalski and her family's treatment by Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. After making international headlines, a jury awarded the family over $250 million dollars in their civil suit against the hospital.

A jury ordered Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg to pay over $260 million to her family after the release of “Take Care of Maya.” Tampa Bay Times reporter Chris O’Donnell, who covered the trial, discusses the film's impact.

After an eight-week trial in Venice, a jury this month held Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital liable for mistreatment of Maya Kowalski. The St. Petersburg hospital now must pay over $260 million in damages.

In June, a Netflix documentary called “Take Care of Maya" was released. It shares the Kowalski family's emotional story about the care Maya received when she visited the hospital in 2016.

At 10 years old, Maya was rushed into the All Children's emergency room for severe pain. The symptoms were something her doctors had already diagnosed as complex regional pain disorder — an illness causing intermittent chronic pain that can be disabling.

But once inside the hospital, doctors questioned Maya's diagnosis and the treatment she'd received and separated the girl from her family.

For over three months, Maya had little to no contact with her parents, even their phone calls were monitored. The hospital doctors and social workers claimed Maya’s parents had committed medical abuse against their daughter.

But what happened during that three-month span would change the family’s lives forever. Maya’s mother, Beata, committed suicide. She believed that was the only way to get her daughter released from the hospital.

WUSF's Meghan Bowman spoke with Tampa Bay Times reporter Chris O'Donnell, who covered the trialextensively.

The hospital defended each of the charges from the Kowalski family, which included medical negligence, fraudulent billing and false imprisonment, according to O'Donnell. He said the verdict will likely go to appeal to either overturn or reduce damages.

The following is an excerpt from the conversation between Bowman and O'Donnell.

Can you tell me about the trial and what it was like sitting through some of it?

It was a very emotional trial. I watched the time that Maya took the stand. She's now 17 years old (and) she had to relive the whole story of how she was separated from her mum. Her mum left her in the hospital to go to work. She didn't know that that would be the last time that her mum would ever hold her or say goodbye to her.

And three months later, she finds out that her mother's dead and took her own life. She testified and there (were) tears. Some of the jurors were in tears when she was testifying. It was very, very emotional.

Are there some important lessons to take away from this trial?

I think this trial, if there's any kind of lesson from it, speaks to that sense that we've seen a lot in Florida in terms of the authority of the medical sector versus parents’ rights. So the parents say they wanted to take their child somewhere else – they weren't happy with what All Children's (Hospital) was saying.

And All Children's said, if you try and remove the child against medical advice, then our security is going to stop you. And that was what the jury found to be one of the counts of false imprisonment.

I just watched the Netflix documentary, do you think that this played a role in how this trial ended up or what happened with it?

It's impossible to say whether all of the jurors saw the documentary. So during jury screening, that was obviously one of the things that came up. But I will say this, it was a family story with a terrible tragedy. It's hard to imagine that the jury wasn't sympathetic toward this young girl who, so very eloquently, was very well-spoken on the witness stand. But emotional when, even when the verdict was read, she and her brother and their father, they all wept. There was no hint of celebration.

She actually said afterward, you know that she wanted to prove that her mom was right (and) her mom had not mistreated her. That was like, really important to her. So I think the moment that you put that family in front of a jury, you're facing an uphill battle.

We've heard a lot in the past, about podcasts coming out, documentaries coming out, and families or people getting justice or their convictions overturned. Do you think that a podcast or a documentary would be necessary for somebody to actually get justice?

It certainly raised awareness of this family and what happened to them. I mean, this story, after the documentary came out, made international headlines. But a lot of people were following his trial. I actually joined a few Facebook groups just to try and get the temperature of the people that were watching the trial. And people were very heated. A lot of people were very angry at the hospital. And they really wanted what they saw as justice for Maya and her family.

What happens now for the family? I mean, is this ordeal over for them? Or do they have to wait for the funds to even be released?

There'll be no award of damages until the appeal is concluded – and that could be a long time. But for the family, I feel like this was really a turning point. They fought and went through so much. It was almost five years to the day that the trial began. So that's five years of just delays and setbacks. But, from a PR perspective, this seems to have been a disaster for the hospital.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Meghan Bowman