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Court allows rare claim against teachers to go to trial in wrongful death case

Maria Anderson, sued two teachers at the Swartz Creek Middle School after her sixth-grade son drowned during a physical education class.  Because of governmental immunity, she could not sue the school system, and can only sue the teachers if they were guilty of "gross negligence" that was "the" cause of her son's death.

Anderson provided evidence that a sixth and a seventh grade class were combined in the pool, more than fifty kids, when one of the teachers decided to take his class to the pool because the gym was occupied.  His class received only five minutes of instruction and inadequate testing before they were released for "free swim."  That instructor then left the pool to enter attendane in the computer--a task he was not time-limited to perform.

The remaining instructor was engaged in administering a make-up swim test to one of his students and therefore could not comply with Michigan regulations regarding the duties of a lifeguard.  While the latter instructor was preoccupied, children heard the Anderson boy call for help.  He received no assistance until his teacher returned to the pool and discovered him at the bottom of the pool.  Despite efforts at rescusitation, he died days later.

Taking into account the "totality of circumstances" the Court held that a jury could reasonably conclude that both teachers were guilty of gross negligence, or a willful disregard of the likelihood of injury.  It held that Anderson had met the threshold test of documenting conduct "substantially more than negligent" and "so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results."

The insurance company for the school also argued that the phys. ed. teachers were not the "sole" cause of death because Anderson had probably entered the deep-end of the pool despite his weak swimming ability.  The Court noted that he was discovered near the unmarked drop-off and that there was absolutely no evidence that he had knowingly violated any rule or instruction.  Further, it was highly likely that the cursory swim "test" he was given as a group at the beginning of the class had misled Anderson into believing that he could safely swim the length of the pool. The "causation" defense was rejected by the Court.

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