On November 21, 2022, the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District finalized a settlement agreement with the parents of a student who tragically lost their life due to an asthma attack while on campus. The lawsuit alleged that the District failed to follow reasonable safety protocols. As part of the settlement agreement, the District agreed to adopt uniform board policies on asthma management.
Student was an eighth grader who had a history of asthma attacks at school, two of which had been documented by the District in its online database and student profile that is prepared for teachers. On October 31, 2019, witnesses testified that Student’s science class worked on a project that involved designing devices that launched pumpkins down a field. The field was located about 366 yards from the classroom.
At the field, Student complained she was not feeling well. Witnesses testified that her teacher allowed her to walk from the field back to her classroom for her inhaler. After using it, Student walked back with her classmates to the field, but still didn’t feel better so she requested to see the school nurse. Despite Student being unable to stand up straight and her voice crackling, witnesses testified that the teacher instructed her to head to the nurse’s office. Midway to the office, Student was spotted by a campus monitor on a golf cart; the campus monitor testified that Student collapsed onto the her chest. By the time she reached the nurse, Student was in full respiratory distress, lost consciousness, and went into cardiac arrest before paramedics arrived. Student died on November 9, 2019.
Parents filed a lawsuit against the District, alleging that the teacher was negligent and failed to follow appropriate procedures to handle the medical conditions listed in Student’s profile. (Sepulveda v. Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District ((2020) Case No. CIVDS2016435.)
All Local Educational Agencies (LEA) are liable for injuries proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of an employee of the LEA within the scope of their employment. (Cal. Gov. Code § 810 et seq.) Additionally, Districts are directly liable for the reasonable supervision of their students. (Dailey v. Los Angeles Unified School District (1970) 2 Cal.3d 741, 87 Cal.Rptr. 376.) Consequently, adopting appropriate safety protocols and properly training employees not only prevents accidents on campus, particularly for medically vulnerable students, but also protects the District from liability in the event of an accident or injury.
Courts measure negligence by ascertaining a reasonable standard of care in the particular circumstance. Factors include industry standards for how the situation is typically handled and commonality of the particular circumstance.
In this case, asthma is the most common chronic disease among children and caused about 455,000 deaths in 2019. About 16% of Black children and 7% of White children have asthma, and one in six children with asthma visit the emergency room because of it each year, resulting in one in 20 is hospitalized because of it. It is reasonable for an LEA to anticipate students with asthma will enroll in its schools. Therefore, enacting proper safety protocols and training to address these situations may prevent injuries and potential liability.
The District here faced significant exposure in this case. As a part of the settlement payment, a sum of $15.75 million, the District agreed to partner with asthma medical experts to provide training to its staff and adopt the a uniform board policy on asthma management, along with other changes to its protocols.
As a result, LEAs may want to consider a proactive approach to safety for their students, including updating Board policies to conform to current best practices and current law. Additionally, an LEA may want to consider adopting a Section 504 plan for students with asthma. Under both Section 504 and the ADA, asthma is usually considered a disability because it is a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities” including breathing, eating, and going to school. Setting particular standards through these individualized plans clarifies the role of teachers and school staff in helping students manage their disabilities. Setting expectations for individual students can prevent injury while also protecting an LEA from liability.
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