Addict commits suicide at detox center. $11M. Santa Cruz County.


Man addicted to "Benzos" commits suicide in detox center. Policy limits ($1 million each defendant) CCP 998s served by plaintiffs on each defendant. 

The Case

  • Case Name: Cunningham v. Halcyon Horizons Inc., dba Narconon Redwood Cliffs and Bright Futures Recovery, Inc.
  • Court and Case Number: Santa Cruz Superior Court / 16CV02213
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Friday, May 03, 2019
  • Date Action was Filed: Friday, August 25, 2017
  • Type of Case: Negligence, Wrongful Death
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Paul Burdick
  • Plaintiffs:
    Cunningham family
  • Defendants:
    Halcyon Horizons Inc., dba Narconon Redwood Cliffs (rehabilitation facility)
    Bright Futures Recovery, Inc. (detoxification facility)
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $11,000,000
  • Net Verdict or Award: $9,350,000 plus interest.
  • Contributory/Comparative Negligence: Halcyon: 30%; Bright Futures Recovery: 55%; John Cunningham (decedent): 15%.
  • Economic Damages:


  • Non-Economic Damages:


  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 12 days.
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 1 1/2 days.
  • Jury Polls: For BFR: 11-1 liability; 10-2 damages. For Halcyon (Redwood Narconon): 9-2, with one juror abstaining.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Bisnar | Chase, LLP by H. Gavin Long, Newport Beach.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Prindle, Goetz, Barnes & Reinholtz by Jack Reinholtz and Steve Maslauski, Long Beach. (For Halcyon Horizons Inc., dba Narconon Redwood Cliffs.)

    Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith by Michael Descalso and Tracy Trimble, San Francisco. (For Bright Futures Recovery.)

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):

    Michael Sucher, M.D., standard of care.

  • Defendant's Medical Expert(s):

    David Kan, M.D., standard of care, Walnut Creek.

    Alan Johnson, MA, standard of care.

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Chris Lewis, certification standards rehab centers.

  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    Lorna Pham, certification standards rehab centers.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    John Cunningham, 58 years old, married 26 years, father of two girls, retired from Boeing, was addicted to Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Xanax). John’s sister paid “Redwood Cliffs” (turned out to be Halcyon Horizons, a Narconon facility) $37,500 for John to get rehabilitation treatment. After John arrived in San Jose (he resided in Washington), Halcyon sent him to Bright Futures Recovery (BFR) for detox. The family paid another $5,000 to BFR. After seven days of “detoxing” at BFR, John walked into his bedroom at BFR, took a belt and hung himself in his closet.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    John had been addicted to "Benzos" for about four years. He had been to five detox programs, but relapsed after each one. In July 2015, John had his last relapse before going to Redwood (Halcyon). His wife Cindy, believed that she needed more help in getting John to stop relapsing. So, Cindy called his older sister, Jan, to help. Jan was a retired athletic director, coach and teacher of 33 years. Jan started researching rehabilitation centers and found “Redwood Cliffs” (Halcyon). Six weeks before John arrived at Halcyon, he reported to his psychiatrist that he had a plan to shoot himself with a gun. 

    Plaintiff contended that John and Jan informed Redwood of John’s extensive psychiatric history, suicidal ideations, hospitalizations and the medications he was taking, including Remeron (for depression); that Redwood informed Jan and John that John would be perfect for its rehabilitation program. That when John arrived at Redwood on 8/15/15, he was taken to Bright Futures Recovery (BFR) for detox because Redwood did not offer medically assisted (taper) detox which John needed before he could start actual rehab. At the time, BFR had only been open for 6 weeks and was owned/operated by Cheree Davila who was 25 years old and a former addict who had treated at Redwood.

    Plaintiff contended that BFR detox had an inexperienced staff, minimal supervision of clients, no withdrawal assessments, no treatment planning, no higher level of care policy, no suicide assessments. That BFR was so badly run that Davila did not even know that one of the risks of mismanaging a detox was that a client might commit suicide. John was taken to the ER three times in five days for Benzo withdrawal because BFR never assessed the extent of John’s withdrawal, failed to have John properly medicated because BFR was keeping the prescribing MD, Dr. Stephen Stein (prescribing the taper meds) uninformed about John’s condition, and  that the facility failed to give John his depression meds.

    On 8/22/15, between 7 a.m. and 12 p.m., BFR staff left John unchecked and untreated. At 12 p.m., Davila went looking for John and found him hanging by a belt in his bedroom closet. After John died, the family learned that Redwood was really Narcanon – Scientology’s version of detox/rehab. Plaintiffs sued Narconon because John was obviously unfit for Narcanon given that its program had no psychiatry staff and was not based on traditional medicine. Narcanon also referred John to BFR. Plaintiffs sued BFR for numerous reasons, including, but not limited to keeping John in withdrawal through withdrawal mismanagement and leaving John alone unchecked and untreated for the five hours leading up to his death.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    Halcyon contended that John arrived at their rehab facility in the early morning, slept for about five hours, then was taken to Dr. Stein, a private practitioner who contracts independently for both Halcyon and BFR. That Dr. Stein recommended that John receive his detox treatment at a facility like BFR, and that Dr. Stein prescribed phenobarbitol as a "tapering" medication while John detoxed. That John was then transported to BFR.

    Because John spent only eight hours at Halcyon before he went to BFR, and since he did not complete the program, the treatment fee was refunded to his family.

    Halcyon claimed that it fully disclosed the program to John and Jan through its website and contract. That John and Jan signed the contracts disclosing the program, and that Halcyon sent John to Dr. Stephen Stein who referred John to BFR and who approved the detox level of care for John (non-medical residential detox) – BFR’s level of care.

    Halcyon and BFR claimed that,had they known John had revealed a plan to kill himself with a gun, they never would have accepted John as a client. BFR claimed that they sent John to the ER three times, and that John was assessed for suicide each time and the ER cleared John each time to return to BFR. BFR claimed Dr. Stein approved John to detox at BFR.

    That on August 17, BFR contacted Dr. Stein about John’s increased anxiety and that Dr. Stein adjusted John’s meds accordingly. BFR claimed that they set up an appointment for John to go back to Dr. Stein on 8/20 (2 days before John hung himself), but John refused to go.

    BFR claimed they were constantly monitoring John since the facility was very small, staff was always in the facility and there were only four clients at BFR during that week. BFR introduced a lot of John’s prior records showing previous suicidal ideations, lack of family support, non-compliance with doctors’ orders and failed rehabs. BFR and Narcanon claimed John had a poor prognosis and a shortened life expectancy given his addiction, repeated relapses, lack of family support and untreated PTSD (when John was in the Coast Guard, he witnessed three of his friends drown).

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:

    Wrongful death damages claimed by Cindy, Carely and Chelsea Cunningham.

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff §998 Demand: BFR: $1,000,000 (policy limits); Narcanon: $1,000,000 (policy limits).
  • Defendant §998 Offer: BFR: $350,000; Narcanon: $100,000.

Additional Notes

Per plaintiff's counsel:

Prejudgment interest is over $1.4 million.