April 13, 2011 By Paula Kelley | email@example.com
The family of a Choctaw High School student who suffered permanent brain injury in 2007 at an after-school fundraiser was awarded nearly $6.9 million.
In March, Cinco Bayou residents Tatiana Abernathy, and her son, Dakota, 18, were awarded the money by First Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas Remington, who issued a summary judgment for the $6.9 million, plus attorney and court fees against Interstate Fire and Casualty Company and the Choctaw Touchdown Club, Inc.
Product liability cases against Funtastic Factory, Inc., and Emerald Coast Entertainment, LLC are still pending.
Dixie Dan Powell, attorney at law with Powell Powell, and Powell, P.A. law firm in Crestview represented the Abernathys in the lawsuit. Powell said the award amount was the third largest in Okaloosa history.
“We were set for a jury trial in February,” Powell said. “But we received the verdict by the judge.”
Attorneys for the defendants appealed Wednesday, which Powell said he expected. The defendants will have to place the $6.9 million into an account, plus 6 percent interest, pending the outcome of the appeal, which is expected to take six to 18 months to complete, Powell said.
In April 2007, Dakota Abernathy, 14 and an eighth grader at Meigs Middle School at the time, was critically injured while playing on an inflatable “bungee run” while attending the First Annual Jellyfish Festival at Choctaw High School’s football stadium.
The school’s Touchdown Club, made up of football patrons, school alumni, players’ parents and family members who want to help the athletic program, was sponsoring the fundraiser.
Dakota Abernathy was strapped into bungee cords and ran to the end of what resembled a bowling alley lane, and was snapped back to his starting place by the cords, his mother, Tatiana Abernathy, said. In the bungee run, the harder the participant strains against the bungee cords, the harder the recoil.
After exiting the bungee run, Dakota Abernathy complained of being dizzy, threw up and went into convulsions.
A medical helicopter transported him from Etheredge Stadium in Fort Walton Beach to Sacred Heart Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in Pensacola where he underwent emergency surgery to remove a piece of his skull to ease brain swelling and drain blood buildup from a severe subdural hematoma. In a coma, Dakota Abernathy was placed on a ventilator and doctors described it at the time as “shaken baby syndrome multiplied,” Tatiana Abernathy said.
Doctors told her only 5 percent of adults with that type injury survive.
But Dakota did survive, undergoing months of rehabilitation at a hospital in Atlanta. He is now a senior at Choctaw and, with special provisions, will graduate this year.
“My world turned upside down that day,” Tatiana Abernathy said. “I was volunteering at a booth at the festival. Dakota was running around being a 14-year-old and the next thing I knew someone was running up and said Dakota had been hurt.”
The next hours turned into days, weeks and months as he emerged from the coma and slowly progressed to “start all over.”
“He had to learn to swallow, chew and walk; he had to re-learn everything again,” Tatiana Abernathy said. “I brought home a baby in Dakota’s body.”
Although the injury was life changing, Dakota’s life goes on.
“He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an Air Force pilot,” Tatiana Abernathy said. “He loved music, played trumpet in Meig’s jazz band and played in the symphonic band. Within a day he could play any piece of music.”
However, Dakota is no longer capable of pursuing his dream to become a pilot and can no longer play the trumpet.
“He is not the same kid; the one I raised to age 14 is gone,” Tatiana Abernathy said, her voice choking with emotion. “All his friends are going on to do great things after high school graduation and he struggles with the normal things.”
Dakota is self-conscious about himself since the injury and cannot process emotions as he once did, his mother said. He is on several daily medications and sees doctors regularly. His mother works as an accountant and is a single parent.
“It has been a long journey to get to this place with the lawsuit,” Tatiana Abernathy said. “Our home was almost in foreclosure; life four years later is just still an everyday struggle.
“I am so thankful that Mr. Powell took this case. He treats us like we are members of his family and he has given more to this case than was ever asked of him as a professional. He has worked to make the financial burden of Dakota’s injury and new life doable.”
“I don’t want Dakota and Tatiana to think for one moment that this is not the fourth quarter and the two-minute warning has just sounded, because it has,” Powell said. “It’s been a long four years for both of them.”