Parents hope lawsuit helps spark change after son’s choking death at local care center

Local News

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Ryan Kowal was the center of his parents’ lives.

“He had a personality like you wouldn’t believe,” said his mother, Treena Kowal. “Very happy, loving, handsome.”

Born with severe autism, Ryan needed a lot of care, his parents said Thursday during a virtual press conference hosted by law firm Chain Cohn Stiles. And when Ryan entered puberty, he became aggressive and needed special medication and treatment his parents couldn’t provide.

It wasn’t easy for Treena and John Kowal to put their only child in a facility, but it was their only option. They trusted he would be safe there, and stressed to care providers their son needed one-on-one care because of a disorder where he compulsively placed objects in his mouth, whether edible or not.

Ryan, 21, bounced around to several facilities before coming to SAILS Westbrook Crisis Home in Bakersfield, close enough to his parents’ home outside the county where they could visit him twice a month.

In June, there was an incident. Ryan choked on a corn dog and went into cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated and spent days recovering in a hospital.

Afterward, John and Treena met with care providers where it was reiterated that Ryan needed one-on-one care at all times, and a medical recommendation was made he be given soft foods only. SAILS signed off on the additional care.

The family alleges the facility failed to provide it.

On Jan. 23, Ryan was left alone for at least five minutes, according to a recently filed lawsuit. During that time, he placed crackers in his mouth, choked and died.

Attorneys with Chain Cohn Stiles filed suit on the parents’ behalf last week, alleging wrongful death, among other causes of action. A case management conference is scheduled in late June.

SAILS has declined comment.

John Kowal said he hopes the lawsuit can help bring about change to make sure care centers provide enough resources to make sure they do what they say they’re going to do. SAILS promised Ryan would be supervised at all times, he said, but they left him alone and now his son is dead. He said he and his wife are “stuck,” their lives forever altered by the loss.

“I don’t even know what to say anymore,” John Kowal said. “We’re here, and he’s not.”

Attorney Matt Clark said SAILS received compensation to provide a stipulated level of car to Ryan then failed to follow through. He said this case should serve as a wake up call to parents and others who have relatives or friends in a care facility to make sure appropriate care is being provided.

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