MANATEE — IMG Academies, the Bradenton training facility that draws students from all over the world who aspire to be pro athletes, on Thursday was found to be negligent along with two medical professionals in the death of a 16-year-old student.
A jury of five women and one man, after deliberating 11 hours over two days, awarded $1.5 million to the estate of Christian Chalita, considerably less than the $15 million the estate had requested.
Chalita’s family is from Mexico and Miami.
Besides IMG, the jury also found Bradenton physician Dr. Joseph Soler and local nurse Carol Tomlinson negligent in the death of Chalita, who attended IMG Academies from 2002 to 2004.
Soler and Tomlinson conducted exams on Chalita at the beginning of the 2003 and 2004 school years and never detected the irregularly shaped heart that may have caused the young basketball player’s heart attack while he was walking on a treadmill in 2004.
Chalita’s mother, Cristina Chalita-Cisneros, was also ruled negligent by the jury in her son’s death since she was aware that his biological father died at age 33 of a heart condition that could have been passed to her son.
IMG, Soler and Tomlinson were each ruled 18 percent responsible for Chalita’s death, making them a combined 54 percent negligent.
Chalita’s mother was 46 percent responsible for her son’s death, the jury ruled.
The jury also did something rare, attorneys said.
They asked in a note sent to the Judge Janette Dunnigan prior to their verdict that IMG Academies set up a scholarship in Christian Chalita’s name so the young man who aspired to play in the NBA would not be forgotten.
“We will never forget Christian,” the jury wrote in the note.
“It’s very rare for a jury to feel so deeply,” said Bennie Lazzara, the lead attorney for the Chalita family.
The jury’s request for a scholarship will carry no legal weight, Dunnigan said.
Troy Crotts of Tampa, the attorney for IMG Academies, would not comment on whether IMG will appeal the verdict or establish the scholarship.
Crotts indicated that he wasn’t released from a gag order preventing him from talking about the case, which was established pre-trial by Dunnigan.
The trial started on Oct. 5 and the jury seemed more emotional after it was over than the family or the attorneys.
One jury member who was an alternate described the last weeks as “extremely intense.”
Another jury member fought back tears and said, “I can’t talk about it” as she left.
After the trial, Chalita-Cisneros, who speaks very little English, expressed to her lawyers, Joe Ficarotta, Isaac Ruiz and Lazzara of Tampa, that she was satisfied with the verdict.
“It was never about the money,” Lazzara said. “Cristina just wanted a court to find that IMG was responsible. Now, IMG has been found negligent in her boy’s death and she is satisfied.”
Chalita-Cisneros said through a Spanish translator that sitting in the courtroom listening to the details of her son’s death were excruciating, but she had to do it.
“I was extremely shocked,” Chalita-Cisneros said of testimony that revealed that there was no heart defibrillator or oxygen in the training lab where her son collapsed.
“It was like receiving blows to my heart. But I wanted the truth. I asked for justice.”
But Chalita-Cisneros also said since her son’s death, IMG Academies has altered some procedures.
“They have made changes after the death of my son and after my lawsuit,” Chalita-Cisneros said.
Chalita-Cisneros said the jury’s act of kindness toward her son in the form of a scholarship request was a wonderful surprise.
“It filled me with lots of emotion,” Chalita-Cisneros said. “Now I know Christian left a legacy at IMG, in Bradenton and in Florida.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686