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A Catoosa County, Ga., jury has awarded $1 million in a “back to sleep” verdict. The award came in a wrongful-death suit brought by a couple whose infant died in 1996 while in the care of the Applebrook Country Dayschool in Ringgold, Ga. Eight-week-old Garrison Edward Thurman apparently suffocated after being placed on his stomach for a nap by a daycare worker. Ringgold attorney Renzo Wiggins, who represented the parents of the infant, said he believes this is the first such verdict in Georgia, and perhaps the nation. Catoosa Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt presided over the four-day trial earlier this month. While many parents still place infants on their stomachs, Wiggins was able to convince jurors that a daycare center that doesn’t place an infant on its back has been negligent. The American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending in 1992 that parents place infants on their backs after determining that stomach naps might cause a child to suffocate. By 2000, only 20 percent of American infants were regularly placed on their stomachs for naps, according to the AAP, and the doctors’ group believes this led to a substantial decline in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome cases. CENTER TO APPEAL Still, defense attorneys argued that it was unfair to blame the daycare center for the child’s death. Chris Townley, a Rossville, Ga., attorney who represented the daycare center, said that placing the infant on its stomach did not breach a standard of care, which, in Georgia, is judged by what a reasonable parent would do. A doctor who testified for the defense noted that this incident could have happened in a home, he said. Townley said he will appeal the verdict. William Casey of the Marietta, Ga., firm Hicks, Casey & Barber also represented Applebrook. Casey did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. “Everybody agreed that this child died of natural causes,” Townley said. “The issue was whether the child could have been saved. Once the child’s breathing stopped, it would die within four minutes. That’s an awfully small window. Even if they had noticed this quicker, you only had a few minutes.” The defense and plaintiffs disputed the amount of time that the child was left unattended. The daycare staff had not checked the baby for 20 minutes, according to Wiggins. Townley said the 11 children in the infant room were continuously observed and one of the daycare workers had been in a rocking chair a few feet away when the baby stopped breathing. The daycare center said it checks infants every four minutes. After the verdict, the daycare center operator said she still doesn’t think her staff breached standards of care. Daycare center owner Teresa Sparks expressed sympathy for the infant’s family, but said that at the time the child died, in 1996, the wisdom of placing an infant on its back was still “iffy.” PARENTS ASKED ON PLACEMENT Even now, Sparks said she doesn’t automatically place infants on their stomachs. Instead, she said she follows state rules that require daycare centers to ask parents how they want a child positioned during naps. She said the plaintiffs in the case, Garry and Leslie Thurman of Ringgold, didn’t tell her how to place the child during naps. But Wiggins said he hopes the state will adopt rules that require infants to be placed on their backs. He said he and the parents will donate part of the award to a “back to sleep” education campaign. Wiggins noted the long period between the infant’s death and the trial and said the case was delayed because of the death of his original co-counsel. Wiggins said he offered to settle the case for $975,000, but the defendants offered “zero.” Don Keenan, an Atlanta attorney who handles medical malpractice cases involving children, said verdicts in wrongful-death cases involving children range from $750,000 up to $3.2 million but $1 million is “reasonable.” He said he hasn’t heard of any other “back to sleep” cases, but the verdict will certainly send a message to other daycare centers. Steven H. Pollak is an Atlanta-based writer.

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