The parents of a 15-year-old girl who died in a wilderness youth therapy program have filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court against the program, its operators, staff members and doctors associated with the program.
Attorneys for Catherine and Robert Sutton, whose daughter Michelle died of dehydration and heat exhaustion May 9 while in the Summit Quest program, filed the civil suit in Salt Lake City Monday. The suit asks for general and punitive damages.The lawsuit says Michelle was denied critically needed medical care despite repeated bouts of vomiting. A Mohave County coroner said the girl died of dehydration caused by exposure to the elements.
The lawsuit lists 15 complaints, including wrongful death, negligence, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, fraud, negligent misrepresentation and child abuse.
Michelle Sutton complained of blurred vision, collapsed and died following what the lawsuit calls a "forced march" over and down Mount Dellembach in the Arizona desert. Field counselors had no working radios and had to light signal fires to summon help. A plane flying over saw the fires and notified authorities the next day.
According to the lawsuit, Summit Quest operator Gayle Palmer "told parents of prospective enrollees that the program was safe, geared to the slowest participant, staffed with trained counselors who would closely monitor their children, psychologists who supervised the program, a nutritionist who supervised diet, and licensed physicians who would give physical examinations (before participation) and be on 24-hour radio call to meet any emergency." The suit also says Palmer promised enrollees would earn high school credits on completion of the program. The suit calls those statements "misrepresentations."
It contends that Summit Quest provided testimonials from parents of children who had completed the program. The Suttons were not told, the suit says, that Michelle's wilderness experience would be Summit Quest's maiden voyage.
"Upon Michelle's death," the suit says, "Palmer began to generate propaganda so as to put the blame for Michelle's death on Michelle and the Suttons instead of Summit Quest. Palmer read Michelle's journal in order to obtain background information from her life story that was part of the program. Using that information, Summit Quest notified other parents that Michelle had died of a drug overdose so as to keep their teenagers in the desert the remaining two months of the program and prevented the other children from telling their parents anything different . . . Palmer knew at the time that there was no evidence that Michelle had taken any drugs while under Summit Quest's control, much less that she had died of a drug overdose or that she died without warning."
Palmer disputed the coroner's findings and told the media that Michelle died of a drug overdose, the lawsuit says. At Palmer's request, a second autopsy was conducted. It found no evidence of any drug use.
Fraud allegations include the representation that Summit Quest had operated for several years and promises that a physician would examine Michelle before the program started. The Suttons say they were promised trained counselors, but the counselors had no training and no degrees from institutions of higher learning. Finally, the suit alleges the girl was harassed for "sloughing off" when she was ill. She was ridiculed, and other students were told "Don't be a Michelle," the suit states.
The suit also names Richard Y. Moody and V. Gerald Thamert from Canyonlands Human Services, who were named as consulting psychologist and counselor respectively; and consulting physicians Dr. Ronald A. Larsen, Dr. Steven Van Norman and Dr. Robert O'Brien, all with Dixie Medical Center and IHC hospitals.