Lehigh Valley

Wrongful death lawsuit to be decided by jury

Federal judge issues order on case involving 2010 death of Liberty High student

Liberty student death case to go to jury

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A federal judge has ordered that a jury must determine if Bethlehem Area School District and one of its physical education teachers are responsible for the 2010 death of a Liberty High School student in Bethlehem.

U.S. District Court Judge Joel H. Slomsky issued his order Wednesday.

Fifteen-year-old Juanya Demore Spady died Dec. 2, 2010, only one month after transferring to Liberty High.

That morning, the boy attended a swimming class led by physical education teacher Carlton Rodgers. The student told the teacher he did not feel well, but participated in the swimming lesson.

Juanya also had told the teacher that he could not swim.

In his next class that day, the boy appeared to be having a seizure. His breathing was labored and "a pink, frothy substance" came out of his nose and mouth.

Nurses were called and they contacted 911.

An EMS unit transported him to St. Luke's Hospital, but the emergency room staff was unable to save him.

In December 2012, Mica D. Spady, the boy's mother, sued Bethlehem Area School District and several members of its staff.  Some district personnel have been withdrawn as defendants since then, but the suit stands against the district and Rodgers.

The parties disagree over what caused Juanya's death.

Dr. Isidore Mihalakis performed an autopsy and attributed the boy's death to "a seizure disorder, the cause of which was not visually, microscopically or toxicologically apparent."

But the plaintiff's expert, the famous forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, said Juanya "died from delayed drowning due to chemical-related toxicity produced by the swimming pool chlorine."

The defendants' witness, Dr. Wayne K. Ross, maintained Juanya died from congestive heart failure.

"The credibility of these expert witnesses is in dispute and the cause of Juanya's death is a material fact for the jury to determine," said the judge in his ruling.

On June 24, the school district and Rodgers filed a motion for summary judgment on two of the suit's counts. Spay, the deceased  boy's mother,  opposed the motion.

"The motion is now ripe for disposition by the court," wrote the judge. "The court will deny the defendants' motion."

In his order, Slomsky wrote that "granting summary judgment is an extraordinary remedy" and appropriate only if there is no genuine dispute of facts.

One of the counts the school district hoped to have thrown out maintains the P.E. teacher violated the teenager's "due process rights to personal security, life, liberty and freedom from state created dangers and arbitrary government action..."

The defendants maintain Rodgers is a state employee who is entitled to qualified immunity.

The judge ruled: "This is a question of fact for the jury to resolve. Therefore, the court will not enter summary judgment in favor of Rodgers on the issue of qualified immunity."

The other count being challenged by the defendants accuses the school district of "deliberate indifference."

The judge ordered a jury also must resolve that issue, so a summary judgment is inappropriate, because  a genuine dispute remains as to whether the school district "was deliberately indifferent to an obvious risk of harm when it failed to train Rodgers and other personnel about the existence of delayed drowning and its attendant symptoms."

Rodgers has testified that he told Juanya he could get out of the pool and go see the school nurse if he wanted to. The defendants submitted evidence that the boy did get out of the pool and Rodgers never ordered him to get back in, but told him he could get back in if he felt better.

However,  the child's mother submitted deposition testimony from a number of students who testified Rodgers did order Juanya to get back into the pool. Those students said the teacher deducted points from their P.E. grade if they did not get into the pool and swim, even if they were not feeling well.

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