Marianne Payne, the mother of 16-year-old Joseph Loudon, has taken a step that isn’t surprising. It’s what many expected. She has filed a lawsuit against the teen-aged Orinda “hosts” of an unsupervised party where her son fatally collapsed died on May 23.
News reports say Payne filed a wrongful death suit earlier this month against her former neighbors on Hillcrest Drive, Alexandra and Patrick P.J. Gabrielli, their mother, Isabel Hamilton, and stepfather, Scott Hamilton. She also filed suit against another local youth alleged to have purchased alcohol for the party. She says the death of her son, a popular, athletic Miramonte High sophomore, was caused by the negligence on the part of the teenagers who provided the alcohol and of the Hamiltons, who were out of town when the party was held without their permission.
Payne evidently feels she needs to take this route. While Payne has not commented on the suit, I doubt she’s motivated by money. Given what she’s said in the past, she’s probably hoping that a suit will yield more answers to what happened to her son that night. She’s said before publicly that she didn’t feel like the official criminal and coroner’s investigations provided her with those answers. She believes that parents of some of the students at the party got their kids to “lawyer up” and refuse to take responsibility.
The cause of Joe’s death remains unknown, largely because of a series of missteps by police and confusion over a prescription drug found in Joe’s system during the autopsy. That drug was later revealed to have been injected to prepare his body for organ donation. The autopsy also found only a small amount of alcohol in his system; authorities believe the boy may have suffered from an undiagnosed heart ailment.
Perhaps this suit is Payne’s way of assigning blame and punishing the people she believes are responsible for her Joe's death—making them feel some of the bottomless pain of grief she’s living with.
Joe had stopped at the party that night, and was there less than two hours when he collapsed in a hallway in front of other guests. He was briefly revived, said he was okay, and helped into a bedroom to rest. But when left alone, Joe vomited and choked.
Sometime during all this, Orinda police officers came to the house following neighbors’ reports of noise. Officers were apparently a few feet away from where Joe was in distress, but were sent away by Alexandra Gabrielli, who said she would make sure to quiet things down.
After finding Joe, some partygoers tried to perform CPR on Joe and called 911. Friends of the Gabrielli family say it was PJ who tried to administer CPR, and it was Alexandra who said to call 911.
But it was too late. Joe was pronounced dead at Kaiser hospital in Walnut Creek.
P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli were never criminally charged with causing Joe’s death. Last month, they pleaded no contest to charges of furnishing alcohol to minors. They were each ordered to serve 200 hours of community service and to pay a $1,000 fine.
People close to the Gabriellis said that the two siblings and their mother and stepfather were devastated by Joe's death. They also said the Gabrielli siblings made many efforts to express remorse to Joe's family, including writing letters to the priest at the Catholic Church both families once attended.
This is a tragic case—and not just because a boy died or because here are other teens in and around Orinda who, I’m told, are living with an incredible amount of grief. It’s awful because of the anger, bitterness, and nastiness it has generated within this community. I engaged in some of that negativity myself, getting angry, writing in a heated, judgmental way about the case. I don't like that I did that.
I received lots of e-mails and phone calls filled with grief, anger and recriminations. But the comments were not so much about what I wrote, but about what everyone involved was writing and saying about everyone else.
Still, I had the pleasure of having a lawyer working with one of the parties write a letter to my home and to my employer, calling me a cyber-bully. But this lawyer, in my opinion, didn’t necessarily take the high road either, engaging in what amounted to a form of legal bullying.
That’s the level that this case has sunk.
I thought that we were all supposed to be such nice, compassionate people here in the suburbs.
It turns out that what I wrote was tame in comparison to what others on both sides posted on my blog, on the East Bay Daze, and now on the East Bay Daze blog on SFGate. In the past, there were some nasty opinions hurled at the kids at the party and the hosts; now Marianne Payne is in for it.
I’ve been sympathetic to Marianne Payne and have hoped she would get the answers she needed. Some say she already knows what happened and is driven by her grief and her own denial to lash out in this way. News reports note that her ex-husband, Joe’s father, has not joined in her suit.
The “system” didn’t help matters in this case. I can’t imagine, if it were my son who died, wanting to get any more involved in this system, with more lawyers and more court dates. Litigation is draining and soul-sucking, no matter how righteous your cause may be.
But it’s not my son who died. I’m just sorry that this grieving mother feels she has to go down this route.