On November 30th, a jury in Monterey, California returned a verdict that found the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies liable in a wrongful death lawsuit that has shaken the harm reduction community for more than five years. The lawsuit was filed by the family of a woman who died after being cared for by members of the MAPS Zendo Project at the 2017 Lightning in a Bottle (LiB) music festival.
After three weeks of testimony from multiple witnesses, the jury found that MAPS was partially responsible for the death of 20-year-old Baylee Ybarra Gatlin. Jurors also determined that MAPS employees were negligent and their negligence was found to be a substantial factor in the harm that led to Gatlin’s death.
The trial was based on a civil lawsuit for wrongful death brought by Gatlin’s family against MAPS, Do Lab, Inc. the producer of LiB, RGX Medical, which provided medical services at LiB, and RGX founder Richard Gottlieb. Jurors awarded $2 million in damages each to Gatlin’s mothers Carla Gatlin and Susan Ybarra-Telias. They determined that MAPS was 25% responsible for Gatlin’s death which requires the organization to pay $1 million in damages. MAPS is not insured for the services offered by the Zendo, which may come as a surprise to some volunteers.
The jury found that 55% of the responsibility for Gatlin’s death was held by Gottlieb doing business as RGX Medical. The Do Lab was found by the jury to be 20% responsible for Gatlin’s death. The jury determined that negligence by the Do Lab and Richard Gottlieb dba RGX Medical was a substantial factor in causing harm to Baylee Gatlin. Because they were included in the apportioning of fault at the request of MAPS, Gatlin’s parents were found by the jury to have 0% responsibility for her death.
MAPS noted that they wanted Baylee Gatlin to be considered by the jury for a percentage of fault in the harm that led to her death, but that the judge excluded her from this consideration. “The judge explicitly excluded Baylee Gatlin from the list, over defense objections, based on a ruling in Frausto v. Dept. of Cal. Highway Patrol,” said MAPS. “Any responsibility held by Gatlin herself, the person who manufactured or provided substances to her, nor any of the people who witnessed her behavior was not able to be considered by the jury.”
The Do Lab, RGX Medical and Gottlieb reached a settlement last year with Gatlin’s family for $4 million and are not required to pay any share of the $4 million in new damages awarded by the jury. As the Do Lab’s insurance company had already settled with the plaintiffs, Do Lab, RGX and Gottlieb were not represented by attorneys at the trial and could not present arguments or submit evidence.
Fallout from the Verdict
The first question on the verdict, which was read aloud in open court as the jury’s final decision, asked the jury “Sara Gael Giron, Ryan Beauregard and persons responsible for creating and operating M.A.P.S. Zendo Project and the Zendo Project Training materials were employees of M.A.P.S. (hereinafter “employees”). Was any one of them negligent?” The jury answered “yes” to this question.
The jury also answered “yes” when asked if another group of people named in the verdict, that plaintiffs claim were MAPS volunteers, were negligent. The jury did not find that this negligence was a substantial factor in Gatlin’s death.
In a statement about the verdict issued on December 1, MAPS said that its “counsel, leadership, and Board of Directors believe there are adequate grounds to appeal the decision. In the coming days, MAPS will file post-verdict motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial for not properly instructing the jury that certain testimony should not have been allowed.”
MAPS says it is not able to comment on what testimony they considered improper. Post-verdict motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict are extremely rare. Publicly accessible online court records for the case do not indicate that motions for a judgment or a new trial have yet been filed.
In their statement on the verdict, the organization said the decision in the case, Carla Gatlin, et al. vs. Do Lab Inc. et al., could have a far reaching impact. “MAPS recognizes that the result of this trial may now engender a chilling effect for the organizations that offer harm reduction services,” reads the statement.
MAPS and the Gatlin family attempted to settle the case before the trial, but could not agree on a figure. Given the impact of the verdict, does MAPS still believe that it was a good strategy to go to trial instead of raising funds for a settlement? “MAPS was given no choice but to go to trial given the unreasonable demands of plaintiffs and their counsel,” says MAPS spokesperson Betty Aldworth, who noted that these parties had already received $4 million in a settlement from Do Lab, RGX and Gottlieb.
The fact that MAPS was uninsured put them on a different footing than the Do Lab, which did have insurance to settle the lawsuit. Now that the jury has returned a verdict, more information about these settlement negotiations may emerge. Rick Doblin, MAPS founder and executive director, told Lucid News in July that the organization had not then been able to reach an agreement for a settlement. “Settlement is a business decision in the sense that it costs a lot to defend yourselves,” said Doblin. “So we are exploring settlements, but we do not feel we had any medical responsibilities.”
A motion filed in the case on July 12, 2022 by MAPS lawyers states that MAPS made “reasonable attempts” to settle the case at and after the Mandatory Settlement Conference (“MSC”).” MAPS asserts in its motion that the Gatlin family members who filed the lawsuit offered to “compromise” with MAPS for a $1 million settlement. “Then, Plaintiffs increased their demand multi-fold without explanation.”
John Howard, an attorney for Carla Gatlin, confirms that plaintiffs made an offer for a $1 million settlement, but would not comment on whether it was the final figure. “The initial Statutory 998 demand made on June 14, 2021 was for a combined total of $1 million dollars for both plaintiffs,” said Howard. “As a result of the verdict for the exact same amount, we will be seeking pre-judgment interest at the rate of 10% per annum from June 14, 2021 to the time the judgment is entered as well as the costs of suit. In addition, any interest running from the date the judgment is entered until the judgment is paid will be sought as well.”
MAPS says it is not able to comment on possible pending legal actions or legal costs because the judge will still rule on the judgment and potentially a motion for a new trial. If MAPS is granted a second trial, might it further impact harm reduction providers? “We are unable to comment on the highly speculative potential impact of a second trial, if MAPS were to file an appeal, and if the appeal would yield a new trial,” said Aldworth. “MAPS would only do so if it believes the trial would have a positive impact on harm reduction.”
Disclosure: Ann Harrison has consulted for the Zendo Project and contracted with RGX Medical for services.