Most of $1 Million Verdict Reinstated in Special Education Student’s Abuse Case

By Mark Walsh — April 06, 2016 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has restored most of a $1 million jury verdict awarded to a Texas family who sued over alleged physical abuse of a student with severe physical disabilities after a trial judge had thrown out the award.

The trial judge had ruled that a bank serving as trustee and guardian of the child’s estate should have been the party that brought the lawsuit on his behalf, rather than the child’s parents.

But in an April 5 decision in Rideau v. Keller Independent School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, held unanimously that the judge should have allowed the bank to “ratify” the verdict, or accept it for the boy’s estate because the parents made a good-faith mistake in assuming they had standing to sue on their son’s behalf. The appeals court cut $150,000 from the verdict and sent the case back for further proceedings.

The ruling came in a suit involving a student identified as T.R., who received a tainted vaccine as a young child and suffered encephalopathy, which resulted in limited verbal and cognitive skills and required him to use a wheelchair.

In his early teen years, court papers say, T.R. suffered mistreatment at the hands of his special education teacher, including physical abuse. (The teacher is not identified, but court papers say a classroom aide had reported similar misconduct by the teacher years before, with no response by school officials.)

The family sued the Keller Independent School District on claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. After an eight-day trial, a jury awarded the family $1 million, including $520,000 for T.R.'s mental pain and anguish and a total of $150,000 for the parents’ mental anguish.

The school district appealed on the grounds that after the verdict, it discovered that the PlainsCapital bank had become trustee and guardian of T.R.'s financial estate stemming from a settlement of the family’s separate lawsuit over the tainted vaccine.

The school district argued it was prejudiced in its trial because it did not have an opportunity to negotiate with the bank and that the parents made a more sympathetic set of guardians for T.R. before the jury than the bank would have.

The 5th Circuit court said the alleged prejudice was not enough to overcome its conclusion that the trial court should have recognized the bank’s willingness to accept the verdict awarded to the family.

“We ... find that the [parents] offered a reasonable explanation for their mistake in not naming PlainsCapital and that the school district did not suffer undue prejudice from the error,” the appeals court said.

The 5th Circuit did throw out the $150,000 in damages to the parents for their mental anguish, holding that the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act do not authorize such claims for parents of a child with a disability.

The appeals court ordered the case returned to the trial court for further proceedings.

“As part of those further proceedings, Keller ISD will have the opportunity to challenge the now-ratified verdict on the grounds we usually see,” the appeals court said, such as the sufficiency of the evidence or the judge’s jury instructions.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.