Articles Posted in Injuries to Minors

Filing a claim against a public school and its employees can be an uphill battle. This is particularly true because of the doctrine of qualified immunity. In a Washington, D.C. injury case, if a plaintiff files a claim against government officials, the officials are generally immune from suit as long as they are performing “discretionary functions.” Discretionary functions generally involve an element of judgment or choice.

Local schools are afforded extremely broad protection. In general, local schools are protected from liability for conduct that does not violate clearly established constitutional rights at the time of the conduct at issue and that is not carried out in bad faith. If qualified immunity is established, it acts as an absolute bar to the lawsuit.

In a recent state appellate court opinion, the plaintiff encountered immunity as a bar to their case. According to the decision, the plaintiff was a high school junior at a military school and was caught plagiarizing her homework. She admitted that she violated the school’s honor code, and was given a punishment of ten hours of physical exercises, which had to be completed one hour each day. The full hour of exercises had to be completed or the day would need to be repeated.

A release of liability is a type of contract by which one party releases another party from liability that may otherwise have been the basis for a Washington, D.C. personal injury case. Releases of liability are sometimes separate forms that must be signed by the participant or their parent, as in the case of school field trips. However, releases of liability are also frequently on the back of tickets to events such as concerts, festivals, museums, or certain pay-to-play activities such as skiing, bungee-jumping, biking, and rafting.

Liability releases are contracts, and are often found to be enforceable by the courts. If enforceable, a release may excuse the negligent conduct of an operator, preventing an injury victim from pursuing a claim for compensation. However, courts carefully review liability releases to ensure that they are valid. A recent case involving a skiing accident illustrates how courts analyze releases of liability.

According to the court’s opinion, a ten-year-old boy was injured while skiing after he slipped and fell on a patch of machine-made snow. The boy was a member of a local ski team, and regularly skied expert terrain. Before the season began, the boy’s father signed a release of liability on behalf of his son. The release purported to waive the boy’s right to sue the ski team or any ski resort for any injuries he sustained, including injuries that were the result of another party’s negligence.

Products that are made for young children and marketed to parents are assumed to be safe. However, that is not always the case. Each year, hundreds of Washington, D.C. product liability lawsuits are filed based on dangerous or defective products; many of these products are designed for children.

In April, the toy giant Fisher-Price issued a recall of its popular baby sleeper, the Rock ‘n Play, after there had been more than 30 reports of babies dying while using the sleeper. According to an article by the Washington Post, the Rock ‘n Play was created in 2009 in response to the common concern for many parents that their babies would not sleep through the night.

Unlike cribs, bassinets, and other baby sleepers, the Rock ‘n Play allows babies to lie at a 30-degree angle, which was believed to help infants sleep longer. In fact, the company advertised that, “Baby can sleep at a comfortable incline all night long!” However, according to the Washington Post, Fisher-Price developed the sleeper without any clinical research, based on what have now come to be faulty beliefs about babies and how they sleep.

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case discussing the duty a high school owes to its students. The case presents an interesting issue for parents who have a child who was injured at school and are considering filing a Washington, D.C. personal injury case.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was injured while she was using a table saw in woodshop class. Evidently, a piece of wood got stuck in the saw and the plaintiff attempted to free the lodged piece of wood with her hand. However, while trying to unjam the saw, the plaintiff’s hand came into contact with the saw’s blade. As a result of her injuries, the plaintiff’s thumb was amputated.

Apparently, at the time of the accident, the teacher was outside of the shop supervising other students. However, the teacher provided training to all students on how to use the table saw before allowing them to use the saw on their own. The teacher estimated that he watched the plaintiff make at least 60 cuts before the day of her injury.

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Aside from providing students with an education, Washington, D.C. schools have a very important job in ensuring that students are safe during the day. When a school administration fails to take adequate precautions to provide a safe environment for students, and a student is injured as a result, the school may be held civilly liable for the injuries sustained by the student through a Washington, D.C. premises liability lawsuit.

That being said, since schools provide a government function, they may be entitled to official government immunity in some cases. A recent case illustrates how one court analyzed a student’s failure-to-supervise case that was brought against school administration.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a student at the defendant school. One day, the plaintiff was waiting in the school’s auditorium for school to begin with approximately 70 other students. One teacher was assigned to supervise the students as they ate breakfast and waited for the morning’s classes to begin.

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Earlier this month, one state’s supreme court issued a written opinion summarily affirming a lower court’s decision that the contract the defendant trampoline park required patrons to sign was a contract of adhesion and thus unenforceable. As a result of the court’s decision, the plaintiffs will be permitted to continue with their case in a court of law, rather than proceed through arbitration.

Alicea v. Activelaf:  The Facts

The Aliceas arranged to take their two young sons to a trampoline park owned by the defendant. Prior to being admitted into the park, Mrs. Alicea was required to electronically sign a “Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” form. The form contained what claimed to be a binding arbitration clause, whereby anyone who signed the form would be prohibited from filing a case in a court of law against the trampoline park. Instead, the dispute would be resolved through an arbitration company. The form also included a clause stating that any person who did file a lawsuit against the trampoline park agreed to pay the park a $5,000 fee plus interest.

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Earlier last month, a Washington Post article was released, summarizing the data that researchers had accrued regarding the safety of daycare facilities in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the safety of the facilities as a whole. The results were terrifying, showing that 60 young children have died while in the care of daycare providers in the last 10 years alone.

According to the report, the lack of regulation surrounding home-daycare facilities is at least partially to blame for the high number of deaths. In fact, approximately 43 of the 60 deaths over the past 10 years occurred at these virtually unregulated daycare facilities. Home-daycare facilities are not regulated by the Department of Social Services’ licensing division, which oversees all licensed facilities.

This means that the Department is not able to look into the kind or level of care that is being provided until there has been a complaint filed. Of course, at this point it is often too late to do anything. Virginia is one of only a few states that does not regulate home-daycare providers.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently issued a new regulation that will require all vehicles under 10,000 pounds to have backup cameras by 2018. A lack of rear visibility causes a substantial number of pedestrian injuries and deaths every year. Children face a greater risk, simply because they tend to be smaller and therefore more difficult for a driver to see if they are directly behind a vehicle. A law passed by Congress in 2007 directed the NHTSA to develop regulations by 2011, but multiple delays have occurred since then. A lawsuit filed in September 2013 sought a court order directing the government to issue the rule mandated by the 2007 law.

The NHTSA reports that backover accidents, in which a vehicle strikes a person or another vehicle while driving in reverse, cause around 15,000 injuries and 210 deaths every year. Thirty-one percent of the deaths caused by backover accidents are children under the age of five, and twenty-six percent are adults age seventy and older. The new regulation, which will be added to Part 571 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, will require the installation of backup cameras in new vehicles beginning on May 1, 2016, with full compliance expected by May 1, 2018. Cameras must be able to display a 10-foot by 20-foot area behind the vehicle. The NTHSA estimates a maximum cost of $45 per vehicle to install a camera, or $142 to install a full system. It states that the regulation, once fully implemented, will save fifty-eight to sixty-nine lives per year.

Congress directed the NHTSA to make a rule requiring backup cameras in the Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act of 2007. The bill was named for a two-year-old child who died when his father, unable to see him in the rearview or sideview mirrors of his SUV, accidentally backed over him in 2002. The bill gave the NHTSA eighteen months to issue a preliminary regulation, with a determination on a final rule required within thirty months of the bill’s enactment. The NTHSA’s final deadline was in February 2011, but it kept delaying a final determination. In its press release announcing the rule on March 31, 2014, the NHTSA stated that it delayed issuance “to ensure that the policy was right and make the rule flexible and achievable.”

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The family of a child who died of an infection possibly contracted from a rat bite has filed a lawsuit against the pet store that sold them the rat. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be a bacterial infection sometimes known as “rat-bite fever.” The lawsuit alleges general negligence, claiming that the pet store, part of the national chain Petco, failed to warn of the dangers associated with owning a rat as a pet. The plaintiffs are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.

The ten year-old boy, who lived in San Diego, California, reportedly purchased the rat from a Petco store with his grandmother on May 27, 2013. He began experiencing severe pain at around midnight on June 11, including a fever and stomach pain. Paramedics took him to the hospital, but he died about an hour later. After conducting an autopsy, the medical examiner determined that he died of streptobacillus monliformis infection, or rat-bite fever.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people can contract this infection from infected rodents via a bite or scratch, or by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacteria. Common symptoms include fever, chills, and joint pain or stiffness. The infection can be serious and even fatal, with a mortality rate of ten percent, if left untreated. A significant risk of delayed diagnosis exists because the initial symptoms are often nonspecific and the bacterium itself is reportedly difficult to culture. As rats become more popular as pets, some clinicians have expressed concern about increased risk of exposure.

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The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia partly granted and partly denied a motion to dismiss brought by the defendant in a lawsuit alleging failure to supervise a group home resident. Colbert, et al v. District of Columbia, et al, No. 1:13-cv-00531, opinion (D.D.C., Dec. 13, 2013). The plaintiff sued the District of Columbia and a private contractor operating a group home, asserting various tort claims and a constitutional claim after her daughter, a developmentally disabled woman, became pregnant while in the custody of the District. The court declined to dismiss the suit outright, but it dismissed the constitutional claim without prejudice, giving the plaintiff an opportunity to amend her complaint. If the court dismisses that claim with prejudice, it may lose subject matter jurisdiction over the remaining claims based on DC law.

The plaintiff’s daughter, identified in the court’s opinion as KC, was hospitalized at the District’s request in the fall of 2008. A psychological assessment determined that KC needed 24/7 care and supervision, so she went to live at a group home operated by a contractor, Total Care Services, Inc. According to the plaintiff, KC had a history of sexual abuse and neglect, a history of failing to take her medication consistently, and mental impairment.

Total Care and the District were aware of KC’s history and how it affected her condition, the plaintiff claims, but they allegedly allowed her to have unprotected and nonconsensual sex with multiple individuals. The plaintiff does not appear to claim that any employee of either Defendant participated in sexual activity with KC. KC became pregnant and gave birth to a girl named TC, who was born prematurely in April 2011. The plaintiff was awarded sole custody of TC, but she was born with significant health problems and required frequent surgeries and hospitalization. TC died nine days after her first birthday.

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