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Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as Court Declines to Take Case On Electrocution of Student

Court Declines to Take Case On Electrocution of Student

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a Georgia couple whose 17-year-old son was electrocuted in a classroom experiment gone awry.

H.L. and Arlene Nix sued the 3,600-student Franklin County, Ga., school district and various district and school employees after the 1997 death of their son, H.L. Jeremiah Nix Jr. They argued that teacher Paul E. Brown's practice over many years of using live wires in an electromechanical class was a tragedy waiting to happen.

The experiment involved stringing a wire around the classroom and cutting away insulation at several points so students could attach probes from a volt meter to learn how to measure electricity. Mr. Brown controlled the voltage with a transformer, and he sent as much as 700 volts of electricity through the wire for students to measure.

Students sometimes received shocks when touching the wire, either mischievously or when they were adjusting their probes, the parents' lawsuit maintained.

The younger Mr. Nix was at a classroom table when Mr. Brown found him gasping for breath with a live wire in his hands. Emergency medical technicians were called to the school, but the student died from the electrical shock.

Deliberate Indifference?

In their lawsuit, the Nixes contended that the district and school employees had violated their son's 14th Amendment right to due process of law by placing him at an unreasonable risk of harm. Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled that the school employees had immunity from the suit, and the courts granted summary judgment to the district.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit panel ruled unanimously that the district's actions did not meet various legal tests for holding a district responsible for classroom injuries to a student.

"The conditions in the electromechanical course, while truly unfortunate, do not rise to the level of an affront of constitutional dimension," the appeals court said in its opinion last year.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Nix v. Franklin County School District (Case No. 02-1218), the parents urged the justices to use the case to further define the liability of governments for "state-created dangers."

"The conduct of the defendants constituted a deliberate indifference to the safety of Jeremiah Nix and other Franklin County High School students," their brief said.

The school district declined to file a response brief in the high court, and the justices declined review of the case without comment on March 31.

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 32-33

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