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Brooklyn appeals court limits liability of school in student’s death

The Hewlett-Packard HeartStream automated external defibrillator. AP Photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A panel of Brooklyn Appellate Court judges ruled that a Queens high school may not be wholly liable for the death of a student who collapsed to her death during a physical education class.

According to court papers, 11th grader Schermiela Palmer collapsed and died after walking and running around a track at Beach Channel High School. Palmer’s parents filed a suit against New York City, the New York City Department of Education and the school itself, asserting that the parties were negligent in the supervision of their child.

Palmer’s parents sought a summary judgment from the court that  as a matter of law — as opposed to a matter of fact — the school’s negligence caused their daughter’s death.  In order to succeed on summary judgment, one has to prove that there are now facts in dispute in the case at hand and that the law demands that the defendant be found liable of the actions claimed.

New York’s Education Law requires that schools “provide and maintain on-site … automated external de-fibrillation (AED) equipment.”  It appears from court papers that Beach Channel High School did not have an AED device on hand which, Palmer’s parents say, would have saved their daughter’s life had one been readily available. As such, the parents’ argument continued, the lack of an AED device contributed to the death of their child.

While law requires that AED equipment be on school sites, evidence showed that any “alleged failure [of the school] to provide ready and appropriate access to an automated external defibrillator was not a proximate cause of the decedent’s injuries.”

The city was able to sufficiently show that an AED device can only be used if and when a person has ceased breathing. Evidence showed that the deceased student “was breathing and had a pulse until seconds before emergency medical services (hereinafter EMS) personnel arrived at the School,” the court wrote. Therefore, the lack of access to an AED device was irrelevant and the use of any AED device would have been prohibited.

Furthermore, the court found that school officials were not negligent in failing to provide CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation — to the deceased student after her collapse. “CPR procedures should not be performed on…an individual who is breathing and has a pulse,” the court wrote, citing evidence to support that claim.

The court, however, left some room for a claim against the city to proceed. “Schools are under a duty to adequately supervise the students in their charge and they will be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision,” the court noted, citing precedent.  

The court did find that “the existence of a triable issue of fact…as to whether the decedent’s physical education teacher denied the decedent’s request to stop and rest after she completed the first lap.” If the parents wish, they may proceed with a trial on that issue.

"This was a tragic situation. We cannot comment further due to the ongoing litigation," a spokesperson for the New York City Law Department told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The parents were represented by Drummond & Squillace, PLLC, of Jamaica, Queens.

August 19, 2013 - 2:00pm


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