$28.5 Million Settlement for California Special Needs Student Hit by Car Highlights Education Policy
A $28.5 million settlement has been awarded following a February 2017 car accident that left an 11-year-old boy with severe injuries including facial fractures, internal hemorrhaging, and broken bones. At the time of the accident, Fabian Sanchez was enrolled in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) as a special needs student at Puesta Del Sol Elementary School. Over the course of nearly three years, attorneys representing the victim pursued a two-pronged approach in an effort to ensure that, in addition to tort damages being collected, public school policy and procedure — specifically related to special needs students — would be reformed. The linchpin to such a pursuit would turn out to be IEPs.
An IEP is a written statement detailing the specific educational program designed for a child with special needs. It’s a requirement for every public school child who receives special education services in the nation. The U.S. Department of Education mandates that, “Each IEP must be designed for one student and must be a truly individualized document.”
The IEP between Fabian’s mother, Maria, and the Victor Elementary School District stipulated that he be provided direct “curb-to-curb transportation,” when being picked up or dropped off at home. A trial brief from Sanchez’s attorneys outlined the extent of the child’s special needs condition in greater detail. The brief included an evaluation from the school district’s psychologist that determined Sanchez, “suffered from cognitive deficits that impacted his ability to safely walk home.” On February 3, 2017, Sanchez was walking home from school, attempting to cross a four-lane road, when suddenly struck by an oncoming car at approximately 50 mph. Instead of curb-to-curb transportation, Sanchez’s attorneys argued that he was, “escorted to the edge of campus by district personnel who walked him across a street,” and then left to walk home alone. That failure on the part of the School District to uphold the IEP would become the focal point of any potential settlement agreements.
Throughout nearly three years of contentious negotiations, Sanchez’s attorneys mandated that any potential agreement must first include a stipulation that the school district agree to implement improved changes to procedures for special education students. No financial figure would be considered without such a caveat. To appreciate such insistence, it helps to better understand Individualized Education Programs.
Sanchez’s case highlights the significance of IEPs as legally binding agreements that play a critical role in the life and learning experience of all special needs students. IEPs constitute an agreement among the school district, the student, and the student’s legal guardian. As federally mandated policy, IEPs require strict oversight including annual reviews, testing, and evaluation. In speaking to former public school administrators, the process — from the moment a student is even suspected of having special needs to the time when an IEP is in place — is not only complex, but highly stringent. Every detail should be meticulously recorded, and all parties should be involved in the decision-making process. It’s a system that often involves numerous teachers, parents, and faculty members. In essence, IEPs are explicitly designed to avoid accidents like Fabian Sanchez’s.
The Sanchez story is undeniably tragic. As a result of a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) the young boy sustained in the accident, he requires lifetime care. It’s impossible to comprehend the pain and suffering that such an accident can inflict on the victim’s family. The case clearly represents a catastrophic failure and negligence on the part of multiple individuals. The Individualized Education Program that was uniquely designed for Sanchez will, however, ensure that all responsible parties are held accountable under the fullest extent of the law. Furthermore, moving forward, it’s possible that because of the focus Sanchez’s attorneys placed on improving IEPs, a similar tragedy might be avoided in the future.
In addition to the substantial $28.5 million settlement for tort damages, the agreement forces Victor Elementary School District — though they have admitted no liability — to face a third party review regarding its policies and procedures pertaining to special education students. A spokesperson for the District, Eric Camarena, confirmed the policy change, noting that “a board policy regarding transportation for students with disabilities has been amended,” and that a “new standard operating procedure for curb-to-curb transportation has also been created.”
Sanchez’s attorneys, Jon C. Teller of Wilshire Law Firm in Los Angeles, and Rahul Ravipudi of Panish Shea & Boyle LLP in Las Vegas, hailed the settlement as a “landmark decision” that could potentially impact special needs students and Individualized Education Programs (IEP) in California and across the nation. School District spokesperson, Camarena, said, “We believe the agreement will help ensure the student receives the best care possible moving forward.”
In a statement, Teller said he hopes the settlement, “leads to substantial changes that protect all students throughout the country who follow an Individualized Education Plan.” Teller’s sentiment was echoed by Wilshire Law’s founding president and managing attorney, Bobby Saadian, who stated that, “The ultimate mission of our work is substantial societal change that makes the world a better place.” Such change could indeed be on the horizon for special needs students.