Family Awarded $2M After Student Choking Death At School
The Palm Beach County School Board has agreed to pay the family of a student, we will call him “Billy” for this article, $2 million after Billy choked to death while he was at school. Billy, a 19-year-old student with autism, was not being watched at the time of his death. The settlement will also require the school district to set up mandatory training for school faculty who work with special needs students. The program will be named in honor of Billy.
An attorney representing Billy’s family said that they were pleased with the result of the settlement and are glad that there will now be a training program in their son’s name to address the lack of supervision and training that led to his death.
In August of 2019, Billy was rushed to the hospital while choking on a chicken nugget. Billy had a form of autism that rendered him mostly nonverbal. With the exception of a few words, Billy did not use spoken language to communicate. Billy also had a condition that made him prone to choking. He nearly died when he was eleven from a similar incident.
In cases like this, students are evaluated based on their specific needs. Billy would have had an aide assigned to him at all times as part of his plan. Since the school knew about Billy’s condition and he’d almost died once prior, the aide was supposed to watch Billy eat to ensure that he was safe. The aide was also required to cut up Billy’s food into small bites.
At the beginning of the school year, the school did not have enough aides to manage all the students. The family was not aware of the fact that one aide had been assigned to Billy and another special needs child who also required active monitoring. When Billy died, the aide was attending to the other student.
Billy took a large bite of a chicken nugget that caused him to aspirate and have a seizure. The student was transferred to Palm Beach Medical Center where he later died.
What about sovereign immunity?
Since the school is run by the state, sovereign immunity rules apply. That means that the plaintiff’s damages should be capped at $300,000, but in certain circumstances, the legislature can approve a larger settlement. However, the parents collected $2 million and the legislature was not involved. Why? Because the parents filed the lawsuit as a civil rights abuse for those with disabilities. This allowed them to collect more than the statutory limit without the legislature stepping in on their behalf. While there’s solace in knowing that the school board was charged under civil rights statutes, the family remains devastated by the loss of their son.
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