The mother of a high school student who died in English class recently received a favorable ruling from the Second District Appellate Court, upholding the $2.5 million jury verdict handed down against a Kendall County school district. The school’s excessively slow response to the student’s severe asthma attack and its failure to follow its own policies for medical emergencies was enough to allow a jury to find for the family and issue the award, even though school districts can be immune from suit in some injury cases.
The student in the case, sometimes known as “Big Jeff” to his family and friends, attended Oswego High School in Kendall County. Based upon his mother’s statements in his school health information form, the school was informed that the student had asthma and that albuterol was one of his medications. In February 2008, the student suffered what would prove to be a tragically acute asthma attack. When the attack started, the student stood up and then collapsed to the floor in his English class. The class teacher rushed to the student’s side and sent two other students to go get the school nurse. What the teacher didn’t do, however, was call 911, even though there was a telephone in the classroom, and school policy said he should call 911. In fact, no one called 911 for somewhere between seven and 20 minutes after the attack set upon the student.
Ultimately, Jeff died that day from acute bronchial asthma. Despite the information form that Jeff’s mother completed, the teacher claimed not to know that the student had asthma. (Jeff had an inhaler in his pocket, but no one found it until after it was already too late.) After the student died, his estate sued the school district for willful and wanton conduct, which is an aggravated form of negligence from which school districts are not immune from suit. The jury sided with the estate and issued an award of $2.5 million in damages.
The school district appealed that ruling, but the estate again won. The school argued unsuccessfully that the estate did not have enough proof to show that its employees’ actions and inactions amounted to willful and wanton conduct. The teacher’s decision to send two students to fetch a school nurse, rather than to use the classroom phone to call 911, while arguably misguided, showed that the teacher acted with genuine care rather than the sort of “utter indifference” the law requires for a finding of willful and wanton conduct, it argued.
The court, however, concluded that the jury had enough evidence to support its decision. The law allows juries to consider many things in a willful-and-wanton-conduct case. These include “a deviation from standard operating procedures or a policy violation,” an unjustifiable delay in responding, or an indefensibly “inadequate response to a known danger.” In this case, the estate gave the jury ample proof of a policy violation in the handling of this incident. The English teacher didn’t call 911 immediately, even though that was exactly what the school policy handbook said to do in situations like this. The jury was entitled to disbelieve the school when it argued that the teacher viewed Jeff’s collapse as serious but not necessarily a medical emergency. As the court summed up, most “reasonable people would view a young person’s thud-like collapse and struggle for breath and consciousness as a medical emergency.”
The estate also gave the jury proof about the delay in calling 911, and the jury was free to give this extreme delay more weight than the actions the teacher did take. Even if it was true, as the school argued, that only a call within the first two minutes could have saved this student’s life, the excessive delay of 7-20 minutes was still relevant in demonstrating the willful and wanton misconduct of the teacher.
In many cases, the law immunizes public schools from injury lawsuits, even if school employees caused the problem or made it worse. However, in this case, the student’s mother, instead of just giving up, chose to pursue her case, and that action eventually yielded a judgment against the school district. If your child has been injured due to the willful or wantonly wrongful conduct of a school employee, the school may be liable. The hardworking and skilled Chicago injury attorneys at Katz, Friedman, Eisenstein, Johnson, Bareck & Bertuca can help you assess your case and decide what makes sense for you and your family. To set up a free case evaluation, contact us at 800-444-1525 or through our website.
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