Litigator of the Week: School District Found Responsible for Special Needs Student's Injuries

, Texas Lawyer

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Michael Hurst represents plaintiffs who sued the Keller Independent School District, alleging that T.R., a special education student who cannot speak, was physically abused at school. Midtrial, Hurst ditched his original plan to cross-examine an additional defense witness.

"I decided the jury was getting fatigued," says Hurst, a partner in Dallas' Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail Shank.

After two weeks of testimony and three hours of deliberations, a Forth Worth federal jury delivered a $1 million verdict on Oct. 11 in favor of Breggett and Terrence Rideau and T.R., their now 17-year-old son.

In an amended complaint filed Sept. 27, 2011, in Briggett Rideau as next of friend to T.R., et al. v. Keller Independent School District, the Rideaus alleged that the school district allowed their wheelchair-bound son, who suffers from brain damage, to be neglected and physically abused during two school years.

The amended complaint alleges that, although a teacher reported the alleged abuse of T.R., KISD took no action, so their son suffered even greater neglect and abuse. The amended complaint alleges the school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide their son with a safe, nonhostile education environment and violated T.R.'s 14th amendment right to life, liberty and bodily integrity by its deliberate indifference and failure to train its staff.

In an answer filed Feb. 16, 2012, KISD denied the allegations and as affirmative defenses argued: the plaintiffs "failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." KISD had "legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its actions," it enjoyed governmental immunity, and the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

In its verdict, the jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas found that the school district had discriminated against T.R., had deprived him of educational opportunities and had done so with deliberate indifference.

Thomas Brandt, a director in Dallas' Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, who represent the school district, extends congratulations to "Michael and his team" but notes the verdict "is not the end of the story." Brandt says KISD, which already has filed a post-verdict request for further, limited discovery, is going to "explore options." Brandt says he thinks the jury ruled as it did because panel members "were overwhelmed with emotion," in this case.

Although he curtailed his cross-examinations, Hurst believes those he did conduct of defense witnesses helped persuade the jury of his clients' claims. He also thought the strategic ordering of the plaintiffs' direct witnesses — he had the parents' testimony bookend his trial presentation — also helped elicit empathy from the jury. He could not put T.R. on the stand.

"You have a child who cannot speak," Hurst says he told the jury, "So he is communicating to us through his injuries." Hurst says he then recommended that the jurors communicate to the school district through their verdict.

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