Student awarded $3.8 million after fingers mangled in metal grinder

Student awarded $3.8 million after fingers mangled in metal grinder
Bryan Zavala, 19, a former Estancia High School student, nearly sliced off several fingers on his right hand in metal shop class when he was 16. (Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

A jury has awarded $3.8 million to a former Costa Mesa high school student whose right hand was mangled in a metal-grinding machine during class.

The incident occurred at Estancia High School on Halloween in 2011. Bryan Zavala, then 16, recalled being surprised when his teacher called him to the front of the classroom and said he didn't have his shop project — a hammer the teen had made in class days earlier.


Not wanting his grade to suffer, Zavala started the project again, he told the Daily Pilot.

He was nearly finished when he went to grind a piece of metal that would act as the handle of the hammer. In seconds, his hand was pulled into a gap between the disc sander and the work table, he said.

The wheel sliced three of his fingers, cutting through the bone of his middle finger.

"There was blood everywhere," he said. "You could see bone and the veins pumping. I was in shock."

Timothy Swift, an attorney representing Zavala, argued that the teen was not taught the proper metal-grinding technique before he began working on his project.

The metal-grinding machine consists of a large wheel that spins in the center of the table. Proper protocol for grinding is to sit the metal piece on the table and place it against the flat part of the sander, Swift said.

The gap between the machine and the work table was too large, which allowed Zavala's fingers to become trapped, the attorney said.

Nearly three years later, Zavala, now 19, said he can still recall the smell of metal from the machine.

"It's still so vivid," he said. "I've had dreams about it."

Doctors initially wanted to amputate, but Zavala's father urged them to do whatever was necessary to save his son's fingers.

Zavala underwent several surgeries, including one that removed bone from his toe to put in his middle finger. Still, nearly three years later, Zavala said he lives with constant pain in his right hand.

He still goes to physical therapy but said he's unable to use his dominant hand to complete tasks — like brushing his teeth — that he once found mundane.

"My little brothers tie my shoes for me," he said. "I can't even hold a glass of water if it's full."

A jury awarded $3.8 million in July for medical costs, future pain, suffering and impairment, according to court documents.


A judge must still affirm the jury's verdict, and a spokeswoman for Newport-Mesa Unified said it was unclear if the school district would file an appeal.

Zavala's parents initially filed a claim with the district seeking reimbursement for their son's medical expenses, estimated at less than $25,000, according to an email shared among board members.

The Board of Education denied the claim, and Zavala's parents filed the lawsuit against the district in 2012.

Hannah Fry is a Times Community News staff writer.

Contact the reporter at For Orange County news, follow @HannahFryTCN on Twitter.