Pensacola Family Sues Residential Center for Wrongful Death of Their Mentally Incapacitated Brother
It was 1956, and Jerome Sanders was a mere 10 months old when the fever from a case of jaundice affected his brain. The care he required ultimately meant he would spend nearly every day of his life in a residential center. Jerome was non-verbal, but his sister Gloria knew he was happy when he was with his family. She also took reassurance in the idea that the Pensacola Developmental Center (PDC), where Jerome lived, was taking good care of her brother. That is until he went "missing."
On May 18, 2023, Levin Papantonio Rafferty Attorney Rachael Gilmer filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Jerome Sanders, who died of hypothermia at age 66 after allegedly being left in a transport van for eight hours on a day when the heat index was 101 degrees.
Defendants in the lawsuit include Florida Mentor II, LLC, which does business as Pensacola Developmental Center (PDC), and Pyramid Inc.
Jerome's family is demanding a trial by jury to hold the defendants accountable for damages associated with the wrongful death of their brother.
“The defendants were entrusted with the care of severely developmentally disabled man," Gilmer said. "Instead, their negligence caused him unimaginable suffering and death."
This action is being brought pursuant to the Florida Wrongful Death Act.
Allegations in the Lawsuit
Jerome Sanders was born in 1956. At the age of one, he became mentally incapacitated, requiring total care until he died in June 2022.
In 1982, Jerome became a full-time resident at PDC, a residential center for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Complaint states Jerome was non-verbal and could walk with some assistance, but his fine motor skills were poor.
On June 22, 2022, Jerome was placed in a transport van to attend a scheduled daily day program offered at Pyramid. He was never escorted off the van, meaning he was either left on the van while other PDC residents were assisted off at Pyramid, or the van on which Jerome was loaded never went to Pyramid.
According to the Complaint, Jerome's disabilities prevented him from buckling or unbuckling himself from a vehicle, and he was unable to either enter or leave a vehicle without assistance. Being non-verbal, Jerome could not call out for help.
PDC did not ask Pyramid staff about Jerome's whereabouts until 3:30 p.m., nor had Pyramid staff reported Jerome's absence from the day program prior to this time.
Staff began searching for Jerome and found him around 4 p.m. inside PDC's transport van on the PDC property. He was unresponsive after being left in the van for over eight hours. There was a heat advisory that day in Northwest Florida, with a heat index of 101 degrees.
Jerome was pronounced dead at 4:18 p.m. The Medical Examiner's autopsy deemed his death to be caused by hypothermia.
Though Nonverbal, He Knew the Happiness of Family
Gloria Cook-Bolar, Jerome's sister, first met her older brother in 1970 in a gymnasium at a residential center where he was living at the time. "He came out wearing a helmet on his head, and I didn't understand why," Gloria said. "But we just sat by each other, and I just loved him from that day up until the last."
When Jerome was transferred to PDC, Gloria made a commitment to forge a relationship with her brother. "I promised the Lord and myself that I will forever visit my brother, go see him, and go get him."
In 1985, Gloria bought a car and began the Sunday tradition of bringing Jerome home. "When we would go get him, he would be happy," Gloria said.
"He would wait at the door [of the facility] for us," said Gloria's daughter, Angel. "If he knew we were on our way, he would stand with his arms crossed and pace back and forth, and when we pulled up, we could see him waiting at the glass for us."
Although Jerome was nonverbal, Gloria said he had a way of communicating. "It was a look. It was body language. If he was excited and listening to you, he would be relaxed," Gloria explained. "His shoulders would be back, and he'd have his arms crossed, and he'd have his head turned looking at you with a big, beautiful smile."
Every birthday, Christmas, holiday, and most Sundays, Jerome was with his family.
Angel said when she, Gloria, and Jerome would arrive at "Big Mama's" (Jerome's mother) house, her uncle expected his food to be ready. His favorite foods were chicken, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and sweet potato pie.
"He was happy those days, but they took him away from us," Gloria said. "And to this day, Sundays are my worst days."