8 Complicated School Personal Injury Lawsuits

School personal injury can be one of the most stressful and upsetting experiences that a parent can face.   When an injury occurs at school, there are many different and intersecting areas of law that can pertain to the situation.  Sovereign immunity protects county-wide school districts and therefore makes it difficult for parents to sue when their child is injured at school.  Official immunity provides similar protections in many situations to county-wide school board members, educators, principals for failure to prevent an injury.  It is important for you to contact an experienced attorney to help you navigate through a school personal injury case.

The school personal injury case below, filed by Donna Austin, highlights just how difficult a lawsuit against a school district can be.

Donna Austin’s lawsuit alleged that she was injured when she fell off a sidewalk as she was leaving a graduation ceremony at Peach County High School. She alleged that as she stepped from a sidewalk into a roadway, her leg became lodged in an opening on the curb where water drains from the roadway.  Austin sued the Peach County School District, as well as the district’s superintendent, assistant superintendent of facilities, director of maintenance, and the high school’s principal.

The defendants at Peach Valley High filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the defendants were agents of the government.  The school district claimed it was entitled to sovereign immunity under the Georgia constitution. The individual defendants claimed they were entitled to official immunity, a shield developed mostly through court decisions saying that although a public officer or employee may be personally liable for his negligent “ministerial” acts, he or she may not be held liable for his or her “discretionary” acts unless they are willful, wanton or outside the scope of his or her authority.  The trial court agreed with the defendant’s argument and granted the motion to dismiss the case.  The plaintiff’s attorney appealed this decision but the appellate court agreed with the trial court.

Donna Austin then appealed again to the Supreme Court.  The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Austin may proceed with her lawsuit.  In the ruling, Justice Harold Melton wrote that the Georgia Court of Appeals was wrong to uphold a Peach County court ruling dismissing the suit on grounds that the school officials were protected by official immunity.  Although the school officials may ultimately prevail, the Supreme Court found that it is is too early in the legal process to reach that conclusion, according to a summary of the case provided by the court’s public information office.

So, the Supreme Court ruled that the defendants aren’t necessarily within the protected class of governmental immunity, and it is simply too soon to dismiss Austin’s case.  As of now, the plaintiff is allowed to pursue their lawsuit.  This means they can continue to investigate whether the defendants had been given specific instructions on how to maintain the area where they fell, and other information regarding the accident.

We would like to emphasize that this ruling by the Supreme Court does not mean that Donna Austin will win her school personal injury suit, but it does mean investigation can continue.  The cause is now still pending.

This is just one example of the how difficult it can be to sue a school district due to their immunity.  But, as you will see in this article, it is not entirely impossible.  Suing a school district is no small feat.  Administrative hoops must be jumped through in a complex legal process.  The cases below are all examples of complicated school personal injury cases, each unique and difficult in their own way.

School Personal Injury Case #1  |  The Mysterious Gym Death Of Kenderick Johnson

Classmates found the body of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta in the middle of a mat propped upright against the wall of their high school gym on Jan. 11, 2013. Sheriff’s investigators concluded that the teenager died in a freak accident, saying he fell head- first into an upright mat while trying to retrieve a gym shoe. But his parents have insisted since they heard the tragic news that someone killed him. An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took place after the accident.  The case was closed, but Johnson’s family insisted there was more to the story and had their son’s body exhumed for a second autopsy last summer.  During this second autopsy a private pathologist determined the teen died of blunt force trauma to the neck and that his organs were missing and his body had been stuffed with newspaper.  It became clear this was more than a school personal injury case.  The family of Kendrick Johnson filed the wrongful death lawsuit against school officials claiming lack of action led to his death at the hands of another student.

“As a direct result of and proximate result of defendants’ aforesaid actions and omissions, on or about January 10, 2013, Kendrick Lamar Johnson was violently assaulted, severely injured, suffered great physical pain and mental anguish, and subjected to insult and loss of life, all of which took place at the hands of one or more students while on the property of Lowndes High School and during its normal hours of operations,” the lawsuit said.

This isn’t the first lawsuit filed on behalf of Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson in connection with their son’s death. In February, they filed a lawsuit against the funeral home that handled their son’s remains alleging the home intentionally disposed of their son’s organs in an effort to interfere with the investigation into his death.  Two months later, in May, they filed a school personal injury lawsuit against the school board claiming it failed to protect their son from bullying, harassment and discrimination, which they argue led to his death.

The case is still pending.

School Personal Injury Case #2  |  School Field Trip Injury

A $1,950,000 verdict was awarded to a third grade student, who was on a school trip.  While on the school trip, she was struck by a taxicab.  The student’s shoelace became untied and when she reported it to the school aide, she was not permitted to stop and tie it. Rather, she was told to keep moving so that they would not lose the rest of the group. When she got to the intersection, someone stepped on her untied shoelace, causing her to fall and roll on the street where she was hit by the car. The student suffered from multiple fractures to her right leg. The jury found the Board of Education 85% liable and the taxicab 15% liable.

School Personal Injury Case #3  |    Student Drowning

The grieving parents of a 16-year-old autistic boy who drowned during a field trip in East Los Angeles have sued Los Angeles Unified School District for negligence and wrongful death.

“The family told the school district that Erick does not know how to swim,” said the family’s attorney, Luis Carrillo. “Why would they let him be alone in the swimming pool when they knew he did not know how to swim?”

Erick Ortiz, a special needs student at Garfield High School, was assigned constant one-on-one supervision.  According to his parents, Ortiz should have been under an assistant’s care when he died June 4.

The sheriff’s department said Ortiz was seen jumping into the deep end of the pool that was 12 feet deep and coming out at least twice before diving in a third time.  A lifeguard then spotted Ortiz in distress and pulled him out and administered CPR with two other life guards.

Ortiz was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

But while on a school field trip at Los Angeles County-operated Atlantic Avenue Park, he was pulled from the water of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. He could not be resuscitated and was declared dead at a hospital.  Attorney Luis Carrillo represents the Ortiz family.

LAUSD sent out a statement about the death of a Garfield High student without naming the victim.

“The District extends heartfelt condolences to the family on its tragic loss,” the statement read. “The District will continue to cooperate with the ongoing law enforcement investigation. Crisis counselors are on site to help the school community.”Luis Carillo, the attorney of the Ortize family responded by stating “how insensitive of Superintendent Deasy or the district to talk about condolences when it was their horrible negligence that caused this enormous tragedy.”

The lawsuit is still pending.

School Personal Injury Case #4  |  Pennsbury School Bus Accident

Although this bus accident occurred 7 years ago, legal disputes still continue today over the horrific incident and compensation for this school personal injury victim.  On January 12, 2007 a school bus driver lost control of his vehicle, a struck more than a dozen pedestrian students as they left their high school.  The bus then went barreling down the road and crashed into a retaining wall.  Seventeen students were hospitalized.  One student, 17-year-old Ashley Zauflik, was left in critical condition.

The bus was driven by township transportation employee John McCleary.  Several students sustained minor injuries, but none as life altering and severe as Zauflik.  Zauflik was transported to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne before being airlifted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where doctors urgently amputated her left leg just above the knee after a bacterial infection intensified.  There were no signs of mechanical failure to explain the tragedy, according to an accident report released by police yesterday. Nor were there skid marks indicating that the brakes were ever engaged.  McCleary was not charged.

“Mr. McCleary inadvertently stepped on the gas pedal,” said Officer John Trindle, an accident-reconstruction specialist who led the investigation. “There was nothing reckless about what he did, [and] it wasn’t intentional.”
In the court order, Pennsbury School District admits that McCleary mistakenly confused the accelerator for the brake pedal “as he shifted the bus into gear.”

A school personal injury lawsuit was quickly filed and a Bucks County Court jury slapped the district with a $14 million verdict in 2011.

This personal injury suit was one of much controversy and debate.  Although the plaintiff received an award of $14 million, it was reduced to $500,000 under a Pennsylvania law that limits how much school districts and municipalities must pay in school personal injury and liability lawsuits.  The case has been closely followed by plaintiffs and defense lawyers, as well as governmental agencies protected by caps on lawsuit awards.

School Personal Injury Case # 5 |  Red Rover Injury Lawsuit

The Santee School District in San Diego’s East County settled a school personal injury lawsuit with parents who sued after their child got hurt playing the game “Red Rover” during gym class.  Back in 2011, a 7th grade student at Carlton Oaks Elementary School suffered a broken leg while playing a game of Red Rover during an unsupervised physical education class.  The parents sued Santee School Districe as a result of the school personal injury.  In 2013, the district paid a $15,000.00 settlement to cover medical and attorney costs in the case.  According to court documents, the student had to have X-rays, casts and physical therapy to recover from the playground school personal injury. According to documents, two years later, the student still suffers through some pain, according to documents.  Many parents feel this is a frivolous lawsuit.  Some might see this lawsuit as the reason why school districts are protected by sovereign immunity.

School Personal Injury Case #6  |   $6 Million Playground Injury Settlement

On Oct. 20, 2010 6-year-old Justice Van Dyke was on the playground of Dennis Earl Elementary School.  Before class, some larger third grade boys were running and playing a prohibited game of keep-away or tag when one of the larger third grade boys ran into Justice, knocking her to the ground. As a result, the back of Justice’s head slammed against the hard, concrete ground. None of the adults on campus stopped the running or saw the collision and school personal injury occur. Justice was medically assessed by an office secretary because there was no nurse or medical tech on campus when the accident occurred. Justice was then sent to class, where she complained of a horrible headache developed. She was then seen by the school’s health technician, who had Justice lay down with ice for two hours. Justice then became unconscious and unresponsive, and had a seizure. Finally, 911 was called, and Justice was airlifted to UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, where she was treated for head and brain injuries.

It was determined that Justice sustained an occipital skull fracture and traumatic brain injury, consisting of a right frontal intraparenchymal hematoma, an acute subarachnoid hemorrhage, and a subdural hematoma with midline shift. She was ultimately discharged from the medical center after five days. Justice now suffers from a seizure disorder. Plaintiff’s counsel contended that Justice has cognitive deficits that affect her short term memory and attention, which will likely prevent Justice from graduating high school. Counsel also contended that Justice’s frontal lobe damage will prevent full development of executive function, which will likely prevent Justice from employment and independent living.

According to the girl’s attorney, the “school district’s personnel failed to supervise and control the conduct of the students on campus before class.” No adults on campus stopped the running, or saw the collision or injury occur. There were only four adults on duty to supervise more than 700 children, constituting “negligent supervision” and a “dangerous condition of public property.”

The Turlock Unified School District eventually settled the school personal injury lawsuit for $6 million.

School Personal Injury Case #7  |  Titanic Sinking Experiment Injury

A Sussex County judge denied the Indian River School District’s request to dismiss a school personal injury lawsuit that claims a class science experiment involving ice water injured a student.  Maureen and Nina Jordan filed the lawsuit against the school district in February, citing nerve damage done to Nina after a 2012 experiment in her seventh-grade class went wrong.

On Oct. 22, 2012, Nina Jordan participated in the experiment in her science classroom.  Her teacher was Lisa McVey at the Southern Delaware School of the Arts in Selbyville.  The activity focused on the sinking of the Titanic and involved students placing their hands up to mid-forearm in ice water as long as possible.

According to the lawsuit, Nina Jordan held her right hand in the water for about 40 minutes. After pulling it out, she noticed numbness, tingling and a lack of sensation.  Her lawyer states that Jordan’s right arm still functions, but there is nerve damage.

“It’s likely she has some permanent damage,” he said.  “They can heal pretty well,” he said of children, “but it causes some weakness to the arm.”

The lawsuit does not outline a dollar amount but demands judgment for “medical expenses, plus future medical expenses.”

On March 19, the defendant’s lawyer, Brian Kasprzak, filed a motion to dismiss the case. Kasprzak claimed the defendant had immunity from liability under a state law that protects school districts and their employees. On July 31, a Superior Court Judge Richard Stokes denied Kasprzak’s request. Stokes asserted an adult must protect an immature student who would keep their arm in cold water for the sake of winning a prize.

While the motion to dismiss argued McVey had the choice to supervise students, Stokes wrote teachers have a mandatory and legal duty to protect their students’ safety.

“Essentially, the defendant’s argument could justify a teacher using a game of Russian roulette to teach students about random chance,” he wrote. “The Court notes that the Titanic itself is a prime example of how people die suddenly from cold water,” he wrote. “And itself an example of the tragic consequences resulting from sailing blindly into a hazardous area.”

The case is still pending.

School Personal Injury Case #8  |  Student Chemically Burned

The Wichita school district is considering a $500,000 lawsuit settlement to a student who allegedly was burned by a chemical cleaning solvent in a bathroom at Kelly Elementary School in 2009.  According to officials, the proposed settlement would be the largest by the district in at least 20 years.

According to court documents, Ethan Belcher was a first-grader at Kelly Elementary in 2009 when he went into a bathroom stall and lowered his pants to use a urinal. His pants and undergarments soaked up a liquid that had pooled onto the floor, the lawsuit says. After pulling up his pants and returning to his classroom, Ethan “began complaining of burning and stinging” in the area of his left hip.”  When he told his teacher this, she sent him to the school nurse.

“I just told her it was stinging and she gave me an ice pack. She didn’t ask to look at it or anything,” Ethan said.

As the day went on, Ethan’s burn got worse. He says the pain was unbearable. Eventually, Ethan’s teacher called his mother, Marsha Smith, to come pick him up.

“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Marsha said. “Of course, as a mom I was freaking out and going crazy. I never would’ve imagined that it would be a chemical burn. Coming from school, you just wouldn’t think your kid would come home with something like that.”

Marsha took Ethan straight to the hospital where he had the first of six skin grafts. Doctors removed skin from his entire back and other leg to repair the damage.

USD 259 Spokeswoman Susan Arensman says out of consideration for federal student privacy laws the district will not share further details on the case. But they issued the following statement:

“The event that occurred in 2009 was an isolated occurrence, and we believe that settling this case is the most appropriate action to take at this time. Since that time, we have continued to establish procedures, practices and training from both a nursing as well as a custodial standpoint.”

If approved, the district would pay $75,000 and insurance would pay the rest.

As said above, school personal injury can be one of the most stressful and upsetting experiences that a parent and child can face.   When an injury occurs at school, there are many different and intersecting areas of law that can pertain to the situation, and lawsuits can be challenging.  If you or a loved one have been affected by a school personal injury, it is important that you immediately consult with an attorney experienced in these types of claims.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *