ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A wrongful death lawsuit was announced by prominent civil rights lawyers Wednesday morning against a Central Florida group home where a 27-year-old man died.
Attorney Ben Crump was joined by co-counsel Natalie Jackson, Matthew Dietz and Aaron Karger to announce the lawsuit against Attain, Inc. and its Oconee Group Home in the wrongful death of Caleb Walker.
“In November of 2020, Caleb, who was diagnosed as autistic and had behavioral issues, was at Oconee Group Home. where his mother and father sent him to get help,” Crump said at a news conference. “But instead of giving him help at this Oconee group home, they killed Caleb Walker.”
The group home location where Caleb Walker was living is located in Eustis.
The death — which happened on Nov. 25, 2020 — was investigated by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the investigation, Caleb Walker had a history of acting aggressively toward his caregivers. Records show that on the morning of Caleb Walker’s death, he awoke shortly after 4 a.m. and began acting aggressively with a staff member.
Two staff members claim they worked together to restrain Caleb Walker by both of his arms on the floor, according to deputies, where they held him for 15 to 20 minutes. After that, records show the workers realized Caleb Walker was not responsive and they called 911.
Court documents said surveillance video did not show the full interaction between Caleb Walker and the staff, but that what was visible on camera largely backed the workers’ account of what happened.
Walker’s autopsy report lists his cause of death as excited delirium with restraint during altercation and his manner of death as homicide.
The findings of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation were forwarded to the state attorney’s office. The state attorney ultimately did not find sufficient evidence to level criminal charges against the facility or the workers who restrained Caleb.
“This legal conclusion does not mean these men were properly trained or that the facility they worked for did not, in some way, fail Caleb. It just means criminal charges are not appropriate,” M. Ryan Williams, the assistant state attorney, wrote in a court document declining to file charges.
News 6 has reached out to Attain Incorporated who runs the group home. Executive Director Dr. Craig Cook told News 6 what happened to Caleb was unfortunate, but his workers followed protocol.
“Based on our investigation we had appropriate staffing, the staff were properly trained, and all indication is that the restraint was implemented the way it was supposed to be,” Cook said.
“This was a facility that was specially trained to deal with autism,” Crump said. “They were a private institution paid more money by the state and families because they were supposed to be trained to deal with individuals like Caleb Walker, who has autism. It is mind-boggling that they would tell this family — this mother and father — that the untrained personnel that they had working at the group home would kill him by doing some WWE wrestling therapy. Caleb Walker, this young man, died from the same thing that George Floyd died from, positional asphyxiation.”
Crump accused Oconoee Group Home of putting “profit over safety.”
“This issue with autistic folks in group homes is not a new one for the state of Florida,” said Deitz, the litigation director with Disability Independence Group. “There have been hundreds of people with autism that get beaten, that get Tased, that are Baker Acted, that do not have appropriate care in group homes.”
“Group residential homes ought to have oversight in the way restraints are employed,” Karger said.
Dietz claimed that the group home was understaffed on the day that Caleb Walker died in a restraint.
“For any restraint, there have to be at least two people there,” Dietz said. “That’s the first issue. The second issue is there should be no pressure placed upon your back or your torso and your head should be turned to the side. So if you have all of those things correct, there should be nothing that happens to them because you’re not putting any pressure on them. But the problem here is they had one person there. They had four (patients) at this group home. They had two staff in place. They had one staff that took him down. So with the one staff they had, there was no way that he could have safely did a restraint at that time. And while that staff was restraining Caleb, the other staff member was in the kitchen having a snack.”
Dietz was also recently involved in a high-profile lawsuit against the state of Florida over its rules regarding face mask requirements in public schools.
Caleb Walker’s parents, Saralyn and Thomas Walker, also spoke at the news event in Orlando.
“My wife and I, as we’re getting older, we realized we couldn’t take care of (Caleb) on our own anymore,” Thomas Walker said. “So we had to trust someone else to do it. We were assured he would be safe. We trusted (Oconee Group Home) to keep him safe.”
“Caleb was my baby,” Saralyn Walker said. “He was my last born. He was special. We tried so hard to take care of him as best we could.”
The lawsuit accuses the group home of negligence and wrongful death. The suit seeks $30,000 in damages and calls for the defendants to face a trial.
You can read the lawsuit and the decision from the state attorney’s office below: