Richard N. Shapiro & Kevin M. Duffan, Attorneys
R. Hughes & P. McConnell, Paralegals
Randall J. Phillips
In July 2011, a recreational football camp for 1st to 10th graders was taking place at a high school football field in North Carolina. The camp was sponsored by the school, but open to the local community and high school-athletes were helping out with the camp, which was supervised by the varsity football coach. As the camp ended about noon, the coaches directed the high school student-athletes to clean up the field, and a couple of the teenagers were asked by the coach to operate a motorized cart to bring two large water coolers from the field to the nearby gym. When the motorized cart was driven directly across the field at about 20 miles an hour, several of the student-athletes jumped in one direction but one 15 year-old jumped to his left. At the same moment, the operator turned hard to his right and the two collided. The 15 year-old student-athlete was run over by the motorized cart and suffered a serious brain injury. He was responsive but incoherent at the scene, before the rescue carried him to the nearest hospital.
That same evening the 15 year-old underwent emergency craniotomy surgery to reduce swelling due to the brain injury and the surgery was a success but the teenager was consciously sedated and he lingered in that condition for days. Ten days later, his condition deteriorated, and his brain herniated causing his death. He was survived by two parents as his North Carolina statutory beneficiaries. Our law firm was retained to investigate the claim, and bring a NC wrongful death suit if warranted.
In every wrongful death case alleging negligence, the harms recoverable are determined by state law, and here loss of companionship, loss of comfort and guidance and these type family relationship losses form the key harms that can be recovered besides the victim’s medical and burial expenses, and lost wage income if provable.
Key Legal Strategy
We sued the school administration, the coach, and the vehicle operator for negligence causing wrongful death. Our lawsuit alleged a lack of proper supervision since no coaches remained on the field, and the estate alleged that the school should have had a standard policy prohibiting students or minors from operating school owned motorized equipment, a policy many high schools have. In fact the school adopted this exact policy within 30 days of the tragedy, but under legal evidence rules, this would not normally be evidence we could mention to a jury since it was designed to “remedy” this from occurring in the future.
The primary defense the school administration lawyers raised was contributory negligence of the 15 year-old decedent because some student eyewitnesses testified he could see the motorized vehicle approaching, but failed to get out of the way until the very last second. One parent testified to the contrary: that the decedent saw the vehicle at the last second and tried to dodge it. Under an antiquated and harsh rule in North Carolina, if a victim contributes in any way to their injuries, the person can recover nothing. We doubted a jury would find contributory fault on the victim, but knew that it would be left to the NC jury to determine. We intended to offer evidence of a sudden emergency, since the victim jumped out of the way at the last second.
(The case was settled about a week before trial with confidential terms)