The estate of an infant who died in a bassinet at a daycare and the church that operated that daycare have reached a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Layah M. Bonds was 6 months old when she suffocated to death Oct. 19, 2016, at King’s Academy, a daycare operated by Freedom Baptist Church at 790 Irisburg Road in Axton.

The church in an order entered Sept. 3 agreed to pay $805,000 to Layah’s estate to settle a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit filed in October by her mother, Lori Lowe-Bonds, the estate’s administrator.

The suit, filed in city of Roanoke Circuit Court, also named Pastor Larry Luffman; Donnie Hall, administrator of Freedom Baptist; Lea Ann Seig, who was director of King’s Academy; and Jill Coleman and Rachel Hodge, who were employees of Freedom Baptist Church who were responsible for monitoring and supervising infants in the nursery. The suit had sought interest from the date of death, legal fees and other damages.

The lawsuit said that Luffman, Hall and Seig were responsible for hiring and training the employees of Freedom Baptist Church who worked in King’s Academy, which operated a daycare for children aged 6 weeks to toddler and a preschool for children older than 4.

Terms of the settlement released these individuals from liability and also covered legal fees, burial expenses and distributed proceeds to various individuals.

The settlement said that Lowe-Bonds “fully understands that her claim involves arguable and disputed questions of fact and law, that the liability of released parties for the above mentioned matters is doubtful and disputed and that payment provided for herein is not to be construed as an admission of liability, which is expressly denied, and that this release arises solely from compromise.”

The agreement also bars Lowe-Bonds and her lawyers from discussing details of the settlement.

Lowe-Bonds would not comment when contacted by the Martinsville Bulletin. Her attorneys, David Steidle of Roanoke and William Wirt Brock IV of Alexandria, did not respond to a phone message. Neither did officials with Freedom Baptist Church and King’s Academy nor their attorney, Brian Cafritz of Richmond.

Henry County Sheriff’s Capt. Wayne Davis said said the sheriff’s office investigated the death of an infant that occurred at King’s Academy on Oct. 19, 2016. He said the death was ruled accidental and that no charges were filed.

“The sheriff’s office did contact the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the Western District, and they did elect to conduct an autopsy as part of the investigation,” he said.

Tracie Cooper, administrator of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Roanoke, said Layah Bonds died from accidental suffocation.

The lawsuit stood in stark contrast to the position Lowe-Bonds and her husband, Marcus Bonds, had taken a few months after Layah’s death, which they had attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Lowe-Bonds was not a member of the church but used the daycare to care for Layah while she was at work. The lawsuit said that at the time of the incident “defendants knew that Layah was incapable of sitting up on her own and had just started to roll over, but was not consistently able to do so.”

The suit says that on the day her daughter died Lowe-Bonds dropped her off at King’s Academy at about 8 a.m. and that employees put her down for a nap between 9 and 9:15 a.m., “propped up on a ‘Boppy-style’ pillow in a bassinet.”

“If Plaintiff had known King’s Academy put infants down for a nap in a bassinet with a pillow, she would not have hired King’s Academy to watch Layah,” the lawsuit states. “Soft objects, such as a pillow, blanket or bumper pad, placed with an infant in a bassinet are a choking and suffocation hazard.”

The suit cites guidelines published in 2011 by the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommended “all infants be placed flat on their backs to sleep in a crib with a firm mattress and without soft objects or loose bedding, including but not limited to pillows, blankets and bumper pads.”

The lawsuit states that Lowe-Bonds did not leave Layah with the pillow or otherwise authorize defendants to let Layah nap with a pillow and alleges that attendants left Layah unmonitored until approximately 11:50 a.m., when they discovered that she was “wedged up against the pillow in the bassinet and was not breathing. The pillow was blocking Layah’s airway. Layah was pale, and her extremities were blue and cold to the touch.”

Layah was transported to Sovah Health-Martinsville, where she was pronounced dead.

“After putting Layah down to nap in an unsafe sleep environment at approximately 9:00-9:15 a.m., defendants left Layah in the bassinet with the Boppy-style pillow unmonitored and unsupervised until approximately 11:50 a.m. Plaintiff hired defendants to provide daycare by monitoring and supervising her daughter. If plaintiff had known that defendants would leave her daughter in a bassinet with a pillow unmonitored and unsupervised for more than 30 minutes at a time, she would not have hired defendants,” the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit alleged the defendants were grossly negligent and that the church and King’s Academy “negligently employed persons unfit to monitor and provide care to infants.” The suit listed the church’s policies and training deficiencies.

Specifically, the suit accused the church/day care and its employees and trustees of:

  • “Failing to conduct suitable background checks to ensure its employees were physically and mentally capable of caring for infants.
  • “Failing to have appropriate policies and procedures in place to make sure that its employees were adequately monitoring and caring for infants.
  • “Failing to properly train its employees in safe ways to put an infant down for a nap to reduce risk of asphyxiation.
  • “Failing to properly train its employees on how to adequately monitor and care for infants.”

The lawsuit filed listed the trustees as Ralph Bird, Charles Corbett, David Harrison, Aubrey Moses and Taylor Motley.

It alleged: “As a foreseeable, direct and proximate result of defendants’ aforementioned acts, omissions and gross negligence, no one helped Layah Bonds when she became wedged against the pillow in defendants’ bassinet, her airway became obstructed and she was unable to clear the obstruction until she suffocated and died.”

The suit states that Lowe-Bonds and other beneficiaries of Layah Bonds (the Bonds have three other children) “have suffered sorrow, mental anguish, and loss of the solace, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice.”

The settlement specifies:

  • “For and in consideration of the sum or … $805,000, Lori Lowe-Bonds … generally releases, covenants not to sue, and forever discharges and holds harmless Freedom Baptist Church, d/b/a Kings Academy, Larry Luffman, Jill Coleman, Rachel Hodge, Donnie Hall, and Lea Ann Seig, Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company and all their respective successors, affiliates, subsidiaries and parent corporations/entities, officers, directors, agents, servants, employees, indemnities, insurers, predecessors, successors and assigns (collectively ‘released parties’) of all personal injury claims, loss wage claims, demands, accounts, actions, causes of action, obligations, proceedings, losses, liabilities and sums of money of every kind and character whatsoever, whether now known or not, which the undersigned, her successors or assigns, can, shall or may have against any of the released parties, arising out of the death of Layah M. Bonds that occurred on October 19, 2016 at Freedom Baptist Church in Axton….”
  • It specifies that Lowe-Bonds’ two lawyers (David Steidle of Roanoke and William Wirt Brock IV of Alexandria) will receive a total of $266,666.66 for attorney’s services rendered and $879.90 for costs expended; that Lowe-Bonds and Marcus Bonds, the natural parents of Layah Bonds, be reimbursed $10,568.14 for medical expenses; that $5,000 be used for the purchase of a tombstone for Layah Bonds and/or other burial expenses; that $1,500 be paid to John Molumphy for guardian ad litem services rendered for Layah’s three sisters. It also specifies that, following payment of all outstanding expenses and reimbursements, $210,192.65 be distributed each to Lori Lowe-Bonds and Marcus Bonds; $50,000 to Layah’s now 13-year-old sister; and $25,000 each to Layah’s two sisters who were born after her death and are now two years old.

Patrice Hagan, senior public relations and communications manager for the Virginia Department of Social Services, said an investigation was done after the infant’s death.

“It was determined that no violation of the church-exempt guidelines were found in relation to the child’s death,” she wrote in an email. “There were other violations cited during the complaint investigation that were not related to the complaint report.”

Henry County Attorney George Lyle said that privacy restrictions involving children prohibited the Henry-Martinsville Department of Social Services from sharing its investigative record or discussing its contents.

Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.

Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.

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