BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A wrongful death lawsuit alleging employees at a movie theater in Bakersfield failed to turn on the lights or stop the film as a 14-year-old boy with Down syndrome lost consciousness while choking on a hot dog is scheduled to go to trial this summer.
On Aug. 12, almost five years after the death of Jacob Mendiola, the lawsuit filed against Reading International Cinemas, LLC, on behalf of Jacob’s mother and grandfather, is set to be brought before a jury.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Timothy M. Osborn said theater employees had no training on what to do in the event of an emergency. Reading had no policies and procedures in place for stopping a film, turning the lights up or lowering the audio.
As Jacob choked and his grandfather and others tried to help him, they pleaded with theater employees to turn on the lights so they could better see what they were doing, Osborn said.
“(The employees) were trained that under no circumstances do you interrupt a movie,” the attorney said.
They also were trained, according to depositions of theater employees, not to call 911 or apologize if a patron has an emergency, Osborn said. They were told it could make Reading liable.
Reading management has denied Osborn’s allegations, but Osborn maintained there are no written policies in place on what to do in the event of an emergency, and that Reading employees backed up his allegations.
Christopher E. Faenza, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing Reading in the suit, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
Osborn on Monday shared photos with KGET of Mendiola with family members, as well as security video of the boy and his grandfather, Ricardo Mendiola, in line at the concession stand Oct. 30, 2014. At one point, Jacob turns around and hugs his grandfather. He loved going to the movies.
“This kid couldn’t be happier,” Osborn said.
They then entered Auditorium 13 to watch “The Book of Life.”
The two found seats and sat down. The movie started and Jacob began eating a hot dog. Suddenly, Jacob stood up.
His grandfather quickly realized Jacob was choking and tried to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him, Osborn said. But Jacob, panicked, resisted him.
Two other men tried to help, but the darkness and noise of the theater impeded their efforts, Osborn said. A theater manager was contacted and tried to turn on the lights, but despite going to two areas and trying switches, she was unable to brighten the auditorium.
A number of the lights simply weren’t working, and hadn’t been for months, Osborn said. The theater had no clear requirement on inspecting or maintaining the lights in its auditoriums, he said, and there have been “rampant and widespread” lighting issues there.
By the time emergency responders arrived, Jacob had already been without air long enough that, when later taken to a hospital in Madera, he was pronounced brain dead.
Ricardo Mendiola and Jacob’s mother, Maryann Mendiola, hope the suit will result in changes to Reading’s policies so another family doesn’t suffer a similar loss, Osborn said.
There is also video of Jacob being removed from the theater on a stretcher, but Osborn said his family is not ready for that to be publicly released yet.
A final case management conference is scheduled for Aug. 2.
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