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$20 Million Award in Baby Death Upheld

Posted on Sep 02, 2007

Award upheld in wrongful-death suit DEATH BY NEGLIGENCE Aurora Espinal-Cruz: Attorneys representing the special administrator of the child’s estate say the previously healthy baby asphyxiated while unattended in a crib at Deanza Jones’ roach-infested Tulsa home in January 2002. By BILL BRAUN World Staff Writer 8/23/2007 Jurors awarded $20 million in the case of a baby whose death was linked to negligent foster care. A Tulsa County judge has declined to reduce a $20 million jury award in a case involving claims that a 7-month-old baby died because of negligent foster care. In an order filed Wednesday, District Judge Rebecca Nightingale also rejected a request for a new trial on behalf of Deanza Jones, who was a foster parent for Aurora Espinal-Cruz. Attorneys representing the special administrator of the child's estate have asserted that Aurora asphyxiated while unattended in a crib at Jones' roach-infested Tulsa home in January 2002. Those lawyers maintained that 17 days after Aurora was placed in Jones' filthy foster home, the previously healthy baby was found in an unchanged feces-filled diaper, surrounded by vomit, with some of her skin eaten away by cockroaches. Jurors in January awarded $20 million in actual damages in a lawsuit against Jones. Attorneys for the estate administrator are pursuing efforts to collect on the award from two insurance policies that they say provided coverage for Jones' foster children. The state Department of Human Services, which placed the baby in Jones' care, previously had paid $175,000 to settle claims against it in the wrongful-death suit. In a judgment order filed in February, Nightingale reduced the verdict against Jones by that amount. Nightingale also awarded the administrator of Aurora's estate prejudgment interest totaling $4,584,191, which pushed the total amount of the trial outcome to more than $24 million, records show. Jones denied having neglected Aurora and denied allegations that the death resulted from her negligence. A medical examiner attributed the 21-pound infant's death to a respiratory illness, and no criminal charges were filed. James Beckert, Jones' trial attorney, argued to jurors that DHS employees were "covering their flanks" and that Jones was being made the "scapegoat." Attorney John Heil -- who did not participate in the trial but has represented Jones at post-trial matters -- contended that the "staggering" $20 million verdict linked to a claim of wrongful death of a child "far exceeds anything ever seen in Oklahoma by a jury."

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