$1 Million Awarded in Student's Death
New Orleans Times-Picayune
May 15, 1996
by Susan Finch
A New Orleans high school senior with a history of asthma problems died in 1991 because two school employees spent more than half an hour trying to reach the girl's mother before calling an ambulance, a judge said Tuesday in awarding more than $1 million in damages to the girl's family.
Civil Court Judge Robin Giarrusso said Catrina Lewis, 19, would be alive today but for the negligence of Oliver Vital, then Lawless High School's acting principal, and school counselor David Freeman.
The family's attorney, Michele Gaudin, said the school system's policy says teachers should call 911 when a student requests emergency help and also should contact the student's parents. But Gaudin said some teachers have erroneously interpreted that to mean parents must be called first.
The portions of the judgments against the school employees are to be paid by their insurance policies, Giarrusso ruled; the judgment against the school system, about $205,000, is to be paid by its self-insurance policy.
Vital and Freeman could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Claire Jupiter, who represented the school system, said it hasn't decided whether to appeal. In her ruling, Giarrusso said that when Lewis walked out of a school assembly March 21, 1991, shortly after 2 p.m., she told a security guard she was having trouble breathing and asked him to call 911. Lewis had been hospitalized previously for asthma, saw a doctor every Tuesday for the condition and regularly used an inhaler device at school.
Using a walkie-talkie, the guard asked Vital to make the emergency call, and Vital, who wasn't in the school office, radioed back for the guard to tell the school secretary to call 911 and also to contact the girl's parents, Giarrusso said. At the trial, Vital said he didn't intend for the parents to be called first, only that they should be notified.
It was the first in a series of delays that would cost Lewis her life, according to testimony Giarrusso cited from the trial of a lawsuit filed by the student's mother, Brenda Declouet. The trial was earlier this year.
According to the chronology sketched by Giarrusso in her ruling, here is what happened after Vital was alerted the girl was having breathing problems:
• On Vital's instructions, Catrina and her sister, Lashaster Lewis, also a Lawless High student, walked to the school office, where Lashaster was told she could not call 911 but was to call her mother instead.
• Lashaster, failing to reach her mother, told Freeman she was probably at Lawless Elementary School picked up her younger sister. Once again Lashaster Lewis asked to call 911. Freeman told her to call the elementary school and have someone try to find her mother, and he sent the security guard there to search for Declouet.
• The counselor told Lashaster Lewis that her sister would be all right and "that an ambulance would cost too much," Giarrusso said. "Freeman admitted that Lashaster was in fact instructed to call her mother to see if her mother 'wanted to pay for the cost of the ambulance' or 'wait for the ambulance,'" the judge said.
• "Freeman testified that in his 30 years of school experience, he always understood the school policy regarding medical emergencies to require a parent's permission to seek emergency medical assistance," the judge said.
• Freeman and a Lawless teacher took Catrina outside for some fresh air, and her condition worsened. She told her sister she didn't think she was going to make it.
• "Lashaster then finally made the decision to call 911 on her own and in fact at 2:34 Lashaster Lewis called 911," the judge said. "This was the first call from Lawless Senior High School on behalf of Catrina Lewis to 911."
• Nine minutes later, a second call came in to 911 from Declouet after she was found at Lawless Elementary and rushed to Catrina, who by that time was unconscious.
• About the same time, school nurse Hazel Johnson, who had been attending a talent show in the auditorium, saw the girl's condition, called 911 and began trying to revive the girl.
• Emergency medical workers arrived shortly before 3 p.m., found Catrina not breathing and with no heartbeat. They couldn't revive her. She was later pronounced dead at a Chalmette hospital.
"Catrina's doctor testified that 'until the girl lost consciousness, she had a 99 percent chance of survival if appropriate medical treatment had been provided,' and the ambulance that eventually responded was available the whole time the student was asking for help," Giarrusso said.
Vital, now the assistant principal at Lawless High School, agreed at the trial that he could have taken the girl to a hospital that was only seven minutes from the school. "Vital, told of the girl's problem, approved the call to 911 but did not make sure the call was made," the judge said.
Freeman, now retired, testified he was not trained to handle medical emergencies. By insisting on Declouet's permission to pay for the ambulance before one was called, he "abandoned common sense and placed rigid rules before a dying child's request," the judge said.
The judgment ordered by Giarrusso includes $850,000 to Catrina's mother for the girl's suffering and death, as well as a total of $175,000 to Catrina's three sisters, Rochshell Lewis, Lashaster Lewis and Ashanti Declouet, all of whom were gathered at the high school and watched her die.
Giarrusso held Vital 50 percent at fault for what happened to the student; Freeman 30 percent at fault; and the School Board, as their employer, 20 percent responsible.
An American Federation of Teachers insurance policy covering Freeman will pay the judgment against him, and the judgment against Vital will be borne by his insurance through the Louisiana Association of School Executives, Giarrusso decreed.
The associations' insurers argued unsuccessfully that they would cover amounts only above what the School Board does not pay but Giarrusso disagreed.
She also cited testimony from a School Board finance officer that the school system's self-insurance program does not cover teachers or administrators and, at any rate, has been running a deficit and hasn't paid a judgment since the fall of 1994.
© 2008-2012 Michele Gaudin, LLC