Settlement ends sweat lodge lawsuit

Published 3:42 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2011

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The owners of an Arizona retreat where a self-help author’s sweat lodge ceremony turned deadly have settled a lawsuit with the victims’ families and seven participants.

A judge still must approve the confidential agreement reached last week, but that’s considered a formality, said Ted Schmidt, an attorney for two of the plaintiffs. The deal puts an end to a lawsuit that alleged Michael and Amayra Hamilton’s conduct led to the deaths of three people and caused injury to others.

“My clients are very happy to finally have all this behind them and to start rebuilding their lives,” Schmidt said Tuesday.

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Lou Diesel, who represented the family of one of the victims, echoed the sentiment: “We’re pleased that the civil cases have been resolved and we’re just one step closer to closure of this tragic case.”

The settlement includes no admission of liability by the Hamiltons; however a confidentiality agreement keeps the parties from discussing its terms.

The complaint had sought unspecified damages and medical expenses. It was among a flurry of lawsuits filed after the October 2009 sweat lodge ceremony alleging wrongful death, negligence and fraud on the part of James Arthur Ray and the Hamiltons. Ray led the ceremony at the Hamiltons’ Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona.

The same plaintiffs who settled with the Hamiltons also have resolved claims against Ray, who is the subject of a manslaughter trial stemming from the deaths of Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman following the ceremony.

The trial began in mid-February and is expected to last until June 21. Prosecutors have about 10 witnesses left to call before the defense begins presenting its case.

The Hamiltons have testified in the criminal trial and are barred from speaking about the case. Their attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

The lawsuit alleged that the Hamiltons acted outrageously and with an “evil mind” in allowing the ceremony to go forward, despite being aware of people becoming sick in other ceremonies led by Ray at the site. The Hamiltons failed to provide adequate medical care, did not warn participants about the dangers and did not ensure the heated structure was built properly, according to the complaint.

Amayra Hamilton told The Associated Press in a January 2010 interview that the construction was sound and that she wasn’t concerned about the allegations. “We feel very much at peace with what we did and did not do,” she said at the time.

The suit sought “fair and just” damages for the victims’ families, payment of medical expenses, awarding of attorneys’ fees and a jury trial. Under the settlement, the plaintiffs will pay all of their own medical expenses going forward, and the parties will cover their own costs and attorneys’ fees. No other details were released.

The case originated in Yavapai County Superior Court but was removed to federal bankruptcy court, where the Hamiltons filed for Chapter 11 protection before the 2009 sweat lodge ceremony. The plaintiffs had asked a judge to remand the case to the state court, but that request becomes moot with the settlement.

The Hamiltons sued Ray and his California-based company months after the ceremony, saying they were unable to recover financially from the event and the negative publicity. That lawsuit is still pending.

The statute of limitations on filing claims arising from the event expires in October.