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Testimony Continues at Civil Trial Over 4-Year-Old’s Drowning

Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club operator denies previous unsupervised incidents at pool

More witnesses took the stand Wednesday in the civil trial over the drowning of 4-year-old Yoni Gottesman, who was found face-down in a swimming pool on his first day of summer camp at Cathedral Oaks Athletic Club on Aug. 10, 2005.

A lawsuit was filed by Oded and Anat Gottesman, Yoni’s parents, years ago, but the trial has only been before a full jury for several weeks. The Gottesmans are seeking damages from 11 defendants, nearly all of whom have conceded negligence, and a jury must now decide if they are guilty of willful misconduct and, if so, determine the amount of the damages.

Among the witnesses who appeared in Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle’s court Wednesday was Richard Berti, owner of Cal-West, which manages Cathedral Oaks and a handful of other athletic clubs, and oversaw the company’s financial state. Cal-West maintains it was not negligent in Yoni’s death. The Gottesmans’ attorney, Barry Cappello, read a statement that Berti had made, under oath, in which he said prior to Yoni’s death that he had never been made aware of any incidents at the club’s pool.

Cappello then introduced a July 2004 e-mail exchange between two members of Cathedral Oaks’ management, alleging that Berti knew his friend and business partner’s wife, Terry Knell, had complained about a lack of supervision at the club’s pool. Berti denied knowledge of the complaint. Later Wednesday, Cappello produced another e-mail from the club’s management that said Knell, who had two boys enrolled in the camp at the time, had observed that the pool had been unsupervised for 15 minutes because she was told the lifeguards had “gone to lunch.”

A second witness, Cathleen Moore, a professor and director of graduate training at the University of Iowa, was also introduced to the jury Wednesday. Moore is a psychologist in the field of visual cognition with a specialty in visual perception and attention. She co-authored a joint article with the director of aquatics at Pennsylvania State University that is of interest to the defense.

“The general gist of the article is that it’s very easy to fail to see critical events that you are supposed to be looking for even when you’re looking directly at them,” Moore said. Moore was not able to address the specifics of the Gottesman case because of time restraints, but is expected on the witness stand later in the trial.

Rachael Steidl was the last witness of the day to take the stand. Steidl is the founder of and worked for the athletic club organizing the kids’ camps from 1990-1994. She said when she began to look into the state licensing of running a summer camp, she was surprised at how few restrictions there were, and that licensing was not required to run a camp.

“It was so strict for parents who were on the property (at the clubs) but it was so lax for parents who go off property,” she said.

During the time she oversaw the camps, Steidl said pool time was a part of camp activities and that children were required to take a swim test and wear bands to indicate how strong a swimmer they were.

In addition to lifeguards on duty, she said, “there were counselors always in the pool with the kids.”

The trial will resume Thursday.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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