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Referee sues San Diego Unified School District and former student for $1 million

Referee sues San Diego Unified School District and former student for $1 million
Vanndyra Jason Srouy, 20, is seen at Crawford High School in San Diego. (Bill Wechter)

A high school football referee has sued the San Diego Unified School District and a teenage Crawford High graduate, claiming $1 million in damages for injuries that he says the former student caused him during a game three years ago.

The referee, John Herlich, claims that Crawford athletics officials knew of, but failed to stop, intentionally aggressive and unsportsmanlike behavior from the football player, including multiple late hits, which he says led to his injuries.

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Because of these injuries, Herlich said last year that he had to get surgery to fix his ankle, shoulder and hip, costing him more than $181,000, according to documents filed with the San Diego County Superior Court.

In response, the school district has argued that it did not cause Herlich’s alleged injury, that there is an assumption of inherent risk when participating in a contact sport such as football, and that there is no law or rule that required the school to stop such alleged behavior.

A jury trial for the case has been scheduled for Dec. 7.

Experts say the lawsuit is unusual in that it names a former student as a defendant, not just the school district.

The football player, Jason Srouy, 19, said he didn’t mean to hurt anyone in the game. Srouy said he doesn’t have a job and comes from a poor family. He said he has found himself stuck with legal bills he can’t afford and a lawsuit he couldn’t comprehend. Srouy said he didn’t know that students could get sued for something they did at school.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Srouy said.

The football game in question happened in October 2015, when Crawford played Holtville High School. During the fourth quarter Srouy, a wide receiver, blocked a Holtville player, who fell into the backside of Herlich’s legs, knocking the referee to the ground.

Srouy graduated from Crawford in the summer of 2016. He said he didn’t hear anything else about that play until somebody dropped off “some legal papers” at his home — papers about the lawsuit.

Srouy, who was 18 at the time, said he didn’t know what to do about the lawsuit. No teacher, administrator or class at Crawford had taught him what to do if he was ever sued, he said.

So Srouy said he and his mother went to Crawford High, asking for help. The Crawford athletic director at the time, Kelcie Butcher, told Srouy that he didn’t need to worry about the lawsuit and that the school district’s lawyers would take care of it, Srouy claims in court documents.

Srouy assumed that the school district would defend him. He thought it was only fair, considering he was wearing the school’s uniform and listening to the coach’s directions during the game.

Srouy didn’t realize until February of this year, more than a year after the lawsuit was filed, that San Diego Unified would not defend him in court.

“I never knew that if someone sued me for something that I did on the football field that the school district would abandon me,” Srouy wrote on a GoFundMe page that he opened to fundraise for his legal bills. “It is just not right. Schools should stand by and defend their athletes.”

Srouy’s lawyer, Michael Kielty, accused the school district in court of negligence for failing to protect Srouy. The school district disagreed with the complaint. The school district’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and the school district does not comment on pending litigation, according to a district spokeswoman.

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Two law experts told the Union-Tribune that students should have no expectation that a school will represent or defend them in court if they get sued. Schools are expected to represent or defend their employees, because employees are agents of the school and thus make the school liable, said Sarah Fields, a sports law professor at University of Colorado - Denver.

Even though students can’t expect schools to defend them, it’s rare for a student to be named in a lawsuit like this, experts said.

“It’s certainly very unusual to have someone go after the kid,” said Timothy Epstein, who has worked in sports law since 2004 and has served as an expert witness and consulting expert for sports law cases. “If there’s no money there, you usually don’t go after someone who doesn’t have it.”

Srouy’s parents divorced when he was young, according to court documents. His mother was a refugee who fled from Cambodia in 1979 and who speaks little English. Srouy’s family has no homeowners insurance, and his mother rents the same apartment Srouy has lived in for most of his life, Kielty said.

For a month, Srouy has been trying to raise $80,000 to pay Kielty, who is currently representing Srouy. Srouy had raised $415 on GoFundMe as of Thursday afternoon.

Thomas Friedberg, Herlich’s attorney, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Taketa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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