After son’s fall in hospital garage, the nightmares continue in the courtroom

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 1, 2013

It’s the thing of heart-stopping nightmares — that free fall into darkness.

And it actually happened to a 6-year-old boy in a Washington parking garage. He tumbled two stories into darkness down an open air shaft and landed, broken and bleeding, on the concrete floor.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Oops, the suits said. They didn’t realize it was uncovered.

Giovanni Destefano survived that fall in 2009 and is now 10 years old. He had surgeries to fix the broken wrists and the slashed scalp. But he still has nightmares.

I thought that was the worst of it: My insides flop every time I imagine that open hole, the free fall — back first — and the landing.

His mom, Wendy Paola Destefano, said she began screaming into the hole, reaching in, waving her hand in the darkness, with no idea how far he had fallen. She almost tumbled in herself, but her 4-year-old daughter grabbed and steadied her.

Alas, no, seeing the details of the accident hashed apart, chopped, sliced, diced and rehashed by a courtroom full of lawyers four years later may turn out to be even more stomach-churning than the fall.

The mom sat on the witness stand in Courtroom 50 in downtown Washington all day Monday, answering questions about her son’s medications, his Pull-Ups, seizures and what she said in lots and lots of appointments.

She reached for tissues and began to cry when one lawyer peppered her with questions about the care she’s given to her daughter since the accident.

No, she was focused on her seizing and fractured son, she explained.

Giovanni is epileptic and has suffered at least a dozen long, difficult seizures. So his mom was familiar with the staff at Children’s National Medical Center and that huge parking garage that swallows you up when you go there. She drove her family from Woodbridge to the District often for appointments with the neurologists who knew Giovanni’s case well.

On March 11, 2009, she parked alongside a wall and hurried everyone inside for the appointment. When they got back to the garage, she told her 4-year-old daughter to back away from the car so she could open the door. The girl pressed against a wall. So did her brother . . . only there was no wall where he stood, and he fell down that uncovered air shaft.

Destefano is suing Children’s as well as Colonial Parking for $57 million. She says her son’s frail condition worsened after the fall, and he is forever scarred by it. She and her daughter almost fell down that hole as well in the ensuing panic.

I admit, I was a little startled by the $57 million number that Destefano’s attorney, Dawn Martin, came up with.

But after seeing lawyers for Children’s and Colonial drill down on that woman for every detail about her son’s behavior — the potty training, problems at school, fights with his sister, nightmares after the accident — I think she deserves some cash.

Then the courtroom heard from a former parking attendant at Colonial, the company that manages the garage. And that’s when you know pain and suffering isn’t all that needs to be considered. Something punitive has to happen.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs issued a citation to Children’s and Colonial the day it happened.

“Grilles are old, rusted and lack the structural strength to act as sufficient safeguards to provide fall protection for the four (4) level parking garage exhaust shafts,” the engineer’s report said.

Children’s spokeswoman Paula Darte said they “began a thorough investigation within minutes of this incident being reported.”

“It was not clear why a vent cover to the air shaft in the parking garage was off,” Darte said. “The entire parking garage was assessed, and no other vent covers were found to be missing. Nonetheless, our team reinforced all vent covers as a precautionary measure.”

On the witness stand, parking attendant Belete Belete was presented with a report that had his name all over it. It was allegedly a maintenance checklist for a patrol of the entire parking garage.

Only problem was, Belete said he never did this kind of a safety check, nor had he filled out a safety report.

Two hours after the boy’s fall, Belete’s boss asked him to sign a backdated checklist to make it look as though inspections were happening all along, he testified.

On the witness stand Monday, Belete said he refused to sign the report. It was apparently signed without his help.

Now that’s enough to turn your stomach, all over again.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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