Crime - Sacto 911

Roseville school district must face suit by brain-damaged student

It was Uriel Jimenez who tried a back flip, but it is the Roseville City School District that may be on the hook for the permanent brain damage caused when his head crashed onto a classroom floor.

A Sacramento-based appeal court ruled May 19 that a jury could find the district culpable for not taking adequate steps to prevent the accident, and the appellant panel sent the case back to Placer Superior Court for trial.

The school district and its attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

There is little or no dispute over the factual scenario.

Jimenez, then a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Buljan Middle School in Roseville, was pressured by peers into trying a back flip in February 2011, and he fell after losing his balance. His head hit the classroom floor, causing lasting damage to his brain function, including a loss of cognitive abilities.

Through a court-appointed guardian, Jimenez sued the district, seeking actual and compensatory damages in an unspecified amount.

Michael Jacques, a private attorney sitting in place of a judge in Placer County, tossed out Jimenez’s lawsuit against the district, ruling that the boy “voluntarily assumed the risk of any injuries” when he attempted the flip as part of a break dancing routine, and the district had no legal obligation under the circumstances to protect him.

But three justices on the 3rd District Court of Appeal decided otherwise. They said in a 20-page opinion “a jury could find that the District did not take adequate steps to disseminate and enforce (its) ‘no flip’ policy ... and that this failure increased the inherent risks of ordinary break dancing, causing Jimenez’s injuries.”

The justices further disagreed with Jacques’ decree, citing a court declaration of Jimenez’s expert, that back flipping is generally understood to be an ordinary part of break dancing.

“When we read that declaration in the light most favorable to Jimenez, it shows that flips are not an integral part of ordinary break dancing,” the justices stated.

The published opinion was authored by Associate Justice Elena J. Duarte and concurred in by Acting Presiding Justice George Nicholson and Associate Justice Harry E. Hull Jr.

The incident occurred before morning classes convened and when there was no teacher in the room. Computer and math teacher Alan Hall was allowing a group of boys to use his classroom to practice break dancing in preparation for the school’s talent show, and he left to go to the bathroom.

Jimenez was a spectator but, while Hall was gone, two of the boys demonstrated a move and insisted Jimenez try it. Using one arm as the fulcrum and his partner’s chest as the center of rotation, one boy propelled his partner’s legs around his arm, resulting in his partner doing a back flip and landing on his feet.

Though his attorneys describe Jimenez as reluctant, he allowed himself to be flipped, but he was unable to keep his balance when he landed.

The school district’s attorneys argued that holding Hall’s absence to be a relevant factor in assessing responsibility for Jimenez’s injury would have a chilling effect on extracurricular activities in California schools.

The attorneys wrote in an appellate brief that teachers “could be reluctant to sponsor or assist with student-created recreational activities if they might be found liable for injuries occurring during a short bathroom break, even if they had no reason to believe that an injury of that type might occur while they were absent from the classroom,”

In their appellate brief, attorneys for Jimenez have another take: “Uriel Jimenez will always suffer from brain damage because a school teacher left him and other boys alone without supervision while they participated in a dangerous activity. The teacher left, the boys horsed around, and Uriel’s head slammed hard onto the classroom floor. It is as simple as that.”

Again, the appeal panel was not persuaded by the school district’s defense, finding that a jury could conclude “it was foreseeable that the District’s employees tolerated a dangerous situation on its property and failed to ameliorate that danger by supervising the children. Even if a jury found Hall’s absence from the classroom was too brief to violate the District’s duty of supervision, it could find that by not properly disseminating and clearly enforcing the alleged school policy against flips, the District increased the inherent risks of break dancing.”

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189