Live Oak Classical School was ordered Wednesday to pay $68,000 to the family of a girl who suffered a rope injury to her neck during a 2016 school trip.
Jurors in Austin’s 201st State District Court deliberated for about seven hours in the civil lawsuit filed by the girl’s family, who had sought $12 million in damages. The suit stemmed from the April 2016 sixth-grade trip to Blanco County, where the black student, then 12, suffered a first-degree rope burn to her neck.
The girl’s attorney, Levi McCathern, of Dallas, said the school did not act in the best interest of the girl and allowed continual bullying by students in the girl’s sixth-grade class to target her.
“I am very happy with the jury’s decision. We’ve got a case that the school’s position was that it was all an accident, it was minor, superficial and nothing happened that required medical attention,” McCathern said. “The jury obviously disagreed with that and awarded thousands of dollars to my client.”
McCathern and his co-counsel, Jim Sherry, were seeking $5.3 million for claims against the school of negligence, gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs succeeded only with the negligence claim after the judge threw out the gross negligence claim for lack of evidence.
McCathern initially asked jurors to award the family $12 million for the trauma the girl and her family had endured since the trip.
At the end of the five-day trial, the jury awarded $55,000 to the family for the girl’s pain and suffering, past and future; $10,000 for disfigurement; and $3,000 for medical bill reimbursement.
The girl was injured on an end-of-the-year, overnight school trip while at Germer Ranch in Blanco County. The girl said she was playing with a round, web-style swing when the rope wrapped around her neck and pulled her to the ground.
McCathern said the incident was racially motivated because the girl was one of two black students in the school and the school failed to prevent bullying at the request of the student and her mother.
The lawsuit originally included a premises liability claim against ranch owner Larry Germer, but an undisclosed settlement was reached with Germer before trial, McCathern said.
The lawsuit was filed in Travis County because Germer lives in Travis County, court records state.
In trial, the girl said she did not know how the rope got around her neck. She said the rope was pulled so hard that she could not breathe, and when she stood back up, thought a group of three white boys, including one who had previously pushed and kicked her, may have wrapped the rope her neck.
Waco attorney Dave Deaconson, who was representing the school, said the school offered a settlement with the family before trial, but it was declined. He said the jury award was less than the school’s offer.
“What this confirms is, No. 1, that Live Oak is a good school and No. 2, that the claims the plaintiff’s attorney has been pushing forward in the media for the last two and a half years to try to get millions of dollars was unfounded,” Deaconson said.
The Blanco County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident but found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Investigators said there was no evidence to support the assertion that the student’s injuries were intentional or arose from racially motivated bullying.
“It is unfortunate that all the students had to go through this, including the young girl,” Deaconson said. “We wish her nothing but the best, but sometimes lawyers use people for their own gain, and the jury saw through it.”
McCathern said he considers the verdict a victory for the family. He said he will not recoup any legal expenses from the girl’s family.
“When you talk about a case where she had less than $3,000 in total medical bills, I think this verdict sends a pretty strong message that the jury felt like the school had some responsibility,” McCathern said.