In drowning case, school district fights document demand
Friday, October 5, 2012
WENATCHEE — A Chelan County court must decide whether the family of drowning victim Antonio Reyes can excavate the details of his death in their lawsuit against the Wenatchee School District.
Court Commissioner Bart Vandegrift said Friday he’ll issue a written decision on whether the district must answer 15 questions and 20 requests for documents sought by the boy’s parents, Juan José and Filomena Reyes, before the case goes to trial in September 2013.
In papers filed last June, the school district admitted liability for the death of Reyes, 14, who drowned in the Wenatchee High School pool during a P.E. class on Nov. 17, 2011. School officials turned over a four-page investigator’s report detailing the circumstances of the death.
But faced with requests for key details in the drowning — including written safety policies, swim testing manuals, and photos and videos — the district in August asked for a judge’s order excusing them from a response.
The district’s attorney, Mark Northcraft, said in court any jury trial should be concerned only with deciding damages to be awarded to the Reyes family. The Reyes’ lawyer, Simeon Osborn, said the information sought will help determine the family’s mental anguish — a key factor in assessing damages.
“They (the school district) just want to go, ‘He died, we killed him, we’re sorry, let us give you a little bit of money,’” Osborn told Vandegrift.
“There’s no greater grief in the world than the death of a child,” Osborn continued. “... We’re entitled to discover how that happened.”
Northcraft replied that Osborn’s request doesn’t square with state law. “His clients may or may not be able to adequately assess the process of their grief,” he said. “... But that is not what the Legislature says is recoverable damage for the death of a minor child.”
Reyes is believed to have drowned during a 15- to 30-second treading-water exercise in the pool’s deep end. He had not undergone a swimming test administered to all students in the class the week before. His body was found at the bottom of the Wenatchee High School pool 40 minutes after his P.E. class ended.
There were 26 students in the class supervised by teacher Ed Knaggs, who’s since been fired over the incident. He is not named as a defendant.
“If learning the details of how this boy died will either make things better or worse for your clients — if it makes things worse, aren’t you simply using the court to help you bootstrap up the damages?” Vandegrift asked Osborn.
“They can’t fully engage their grief until they know how and why he died,” Osborn said.
“Does the school have a duty to provide information to help their therapy?” Vandegrift asked.
“They have a duty to provide us with documents that lead to discoverable evidence,” Osborn replied. “It is a very broad brush.”
Osborn said he wants to learn whether there was “a deliberate, indifferent eye turned to safety regulations” at the school. Northcraft characterized Osborn’s document requests in part as a “fishing expedition.”
Vandegrift gave no timetable for his ruling. If he denies the schools’ motion for a protective order, Northcraft could still seek to exclude any evidence Osborn gathers from being heard by a jury.
However, Northcraft said, “What it would do is create a lot of work for everybody.”
“It should be a relatively short and succinct trial,” he said. “That’s the point of admitting liability.”
The Reyes family filed its lawsuit in May. No damages are specified in the suit itself, but it was filed after the school district declined to pay the family’s $15 million dollar claim for damages.
In February, the district said it would make eight changes to improve safety at the high school swimming pool — among them requiring a second on-duty lifeguard whose sole responsibility will be swimmer protection, and creating a standardized test to distinguish swimmers from non-swimmers.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
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