A jury Tuesday awarded $11.1 million to a 59-year-old blind and developmentally disabled man who has lived for 26 years in a Niagara Falls group home run by the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Niagara County.
Robert Behringer – who is prone to seizures and unable to care for himself – has endured dozens of incidents at the group home since 2006 that stripped him of his dignity and jeopardized his safety, said his brother, Earl Behringer Jr., who brought the lawsuit as Robert’s guardian.
Earl Behringer testified earlier in the 17-day trial that for years he wanted to move Robert Behringer out of the Lockport Road group home to his home in Venice, Fla.
However, the 71-year-old jeweler, formerly of Amherst, said he could not afford to provide the around-the-clock care and supervision his brother requires, and group homes in Florida have years-long waiting lists.
Now, with the jury verdict, assuming it holds up to appeal, Behringer will be able to move his brother out of the 10-person group home.
“I’m going to get him out of here and get him to Florida,” Behringer said. “He deserves a better life. At least now I can provide him with one.”
Jurors deliberated slightly longer than two hours, a surprisingly short time, given the length of the trial and the conflicting testimony.
“We are very grateful for the attention paid by the jurors and the verdict they rendered,” said attorney Terrence M. Connors, who, with co-counsel Joseph D. Morath Jr., found former group home employees and persuaded them to testify against the association.
David C. Blaxill, a New York City lawyer who represented the association, declined to comment after the verdict.
During his closing argument, however, Blaxill defended the Niagara Cerebral Palsy employees assigned to Robert Behringer at the group home, referred to as the Niagara house.
“These people are heroes,” Blaxill said.
For Robert Behringer, “it has been a good life,” Blaxill told jurors. “He is surrounded by people who love him. He is happy.”
Witnesses for the defense and plaintiff described a pleasant man who likes drinking coffee in the morning, listening to Frank Sinatra tunes and sitting in his brown leather chair. He tends to keep to himself, but he opens up to employees and fellow residents who initiate conversations.
Employees who were not accused of any wrongdoing expressed fondness for him when they testified.
Ernestine Gayle has taken care of him for nearly 12 years at the group home. She called him “my dude.”
He kicks his legs out to the side when walking, so he needs two aides to assist him to walk. Because of his unsteadiness, he must wear a helmet when walking to keep from hurting himself.
It would be easier on the staff to keep him in a wheelchair, but “that wouldn’t be good for Robert,” Gayle said.
Earl Behringer acknowledged some employees truly cared for his brother’s well-being. But during the trial before State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes, Earl Behringer said his brother was mistreated by some employees and neglected by others at times.
The incidents and accidents started in late 2007: broken bones, teeth knocked out and an uptick in seizures, among other problems.
Earl Behringer said he received phone calls and letters from the nonprofit organization alerting him about what has happening.
“There were so many phone calls like this,” he testified. “I wanted to get him out of there for his safety.”
Among the incidents:
• Robert Behringer suffered a seizure after the staff failed to give him his evening dose of medication, according to the lawsuit.
• He suffered a seizure after he was dropped and struck his head on the ground, breaking and loosening teeth, when a single aide tried to lift him from his chair, according to court papers.
• While unattended and unrestrained, he tried to stand up from his wheelchair and fell.
• Earl Behringer said he found his brother sitting in his own feces or urine during visits.
“I couldn’t believe the smell,” he said.
He also said he witnessed two employees smoking marijuana on the job. One report he received from the agency indicated two staffers were fired after a supervisor discovered them sleeping during their overnight shift.
Much of the time the ranch-style home for the residents was understaffed, with just two to three employees to keep watch over 10 residents, he said. The ideal ratio was one employee for every two residents.
Robert Behringer has echolalia, which means he repeats the words spoken to him by others.
In videotaped trial testimony, Michelle Adams said she quit working at the group home after only a short time because of what she called “horrific conditions.”
“One of Robert’s conditions also was that he parrots everything that he hears around him,” Adams testified. “So staff members thought it was funny to say things and have him repeat it back, whether it be foul language, whether it be a sexual connotation to one of the other staff members. Because he would repeat not only what you say, but also the name. He knew you, when you introduced yourself to him, by your voice and your name.
“I witnessed other employees saying things to Robert on purpose for him to repeat them, because they thought it was funny to hear him say foul language.”
The jury awarded almost everything Connors asked for: $600,000 in past damages, $1 million for future damages and $6 million over 20 years for future medical costs. Jurors added $3.5 million in punitive damages.
“This case is about a person who can’t speak for himself,” Connors told jurors. “That’s why this case is so important.”