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Family Awarded $1.6 Million in Asthma Death at School

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The family of an 18-year-old New Orleans girl who died of an asthma attack after school officials failed to heed her pleas for an ambulance has won a $1.6 million settlement in a negligence lawsuit.

Catrina Lewis died on March 21, 1991, after a school official delayed calling 911 while trying to telephone the girl's mother to see if she would pay for the ambulance, according to a ruling this month from a state district judge.

Judge Robin M. Giarrusso found the school's principal, a guidance counselor, and the Orleans Parish school board negligent in the death of Ms. Lewis. A state law says school officials have a duty to provide emergency medical care when a student requests it.

"It was a tragedy of errors," Michele Gaudin, the family's lawyer, said last week. "These individuals didn't take things as seriously as they should have."

Ms. Lewis walked out of an assembly at Lawless Senior High School in New Orleans about 2 p.m. and complained to a school security guard that she was having trouble breathing, according to the ruling.

The senior, who suffered from asthma and had been seeing a doctor every week for treatment, told the guard that her inhaler wasn't helping.

The guard immediately hailed the school principal on a walkie-talkie and said the student needed emergency help.

The acting principal, Oliver Vital, radioed back that the student's mother needed to be called.

Ms. Lewis was then taken to the office of counselor David Freeman. He tried unsuccessfully to reach her mother, who had gone to pick up one of her other children at a nearby elementary school, the ruling states.

After 34 minutes, Ms. Lewis' 14-year-old sister called 911 herself. But before help arrived, Catrina Lewis had lost consciousness.

Negligence Found

Mr. Vital, the principal, testified at the trial that he did not intend that the student's mother be called first, but only that she be notified of her daughter's condition.

The judge ruled, however, that Mr. Vital had shirked his duty to protect the child from harm. The judge said Mr. Freeman "had abandoned common sense and placed rigid rules before a dying child's request."

Mr. Vital's lawyer, Frederick Dwyer, said he was "shocked and dismayed" by the judge's decision and was considering an appeal.

A lawyer for Mr. Freeman declined to comment last week.

The judge also found the school board negligent for failing to provide adequate training for its employees or to have a clear policy on medical emergencies.

The judge ordered the insurance companies for the two school officials to pay $1.4 million in damages to Ms. Lewis' mother and two sisters. The school board was also ordered to pay them $200,000.

Clare Jupiter, the school board's lawyer, said last week that it would be difficult not to acknowledge her client's culpability.

"We have responsibility for what happened to the girl and we can't deny it," Ms. Jupiter said, adding that an appeal was unlikely.

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