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Family gets $1.4 million over electrocution at Georgia college

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The family of a 19-year-old student killed by electrocution in an allegedly faulty fountain on the campus of a Georgia technical college reached a record $1.4-million settlement with the state in a wrongful-death lawsuit, an attorney told The Times this week.

Adriana Rhine died as her 3-year-old son, Zi’Quan, watched at South Georgia Technical College in Americus. She was a student at the school but had been on campus that day in late September 2012 to donate blood and celebrate the birthday of her sister Jasmine, also a student there.

As Rhine and Zi’Quan waited for Jasmine, the boy’s blue ball rolled into the ground-level fountain pond. He gave chase. But Rhine stopped him and went to retrieve the ball from the shallow water herself.

Attorneys later found at least 17 issues with the wiring for the lighting and motor beneath the fountain, calling the work incompetent and negligent, according to the lawsuit filed last May.

DOCUMENT: Read the lawsuit

The settlement, reached in November and approved by a probate court this month, awards the family $1 million for Rhine’s death, the maximum damage claim allowed under the state’s tort laws. Zi’Quan receives $400,000 for the emotional distress he suffered as a witness to the death, described as "excruciating and horrific." Rhine had screamed for help, but people who tried to rescue her had to pull back after being shocked themselves.

All $1.4 million will be held in a bank-managed trust for Zi’Quan, the family’s attorney, Yehuda Smolar, told The Times. The boy is being cared for by Rhine’s mother, Lillie. Seven-figure awards in wrongful-death cases in Georgia are rare, the attorney said.

"What happened there is outrageous," Smolar said of the death. "It should have never happened. No parent should ever get a call that their child is not coming back."

A month earlier, another student had been "severely electrocuted" at the fountain, according to the lawsuit. She had been rolling her baby in a stroller when she slipped and fell in. A college employee who was helping pull the student out also was shocked, the lawsuit said.

Despite the incident, the university only washed the fountain and then refilled it, Smolar said.  

"It was a mantrap," he said. The attorney also noted the irony of a school teaching people how to become residential and commercial electricians allegedly failing to ensure that construction on its campus was up to code.

"That’s not something you would expect," he said. "This stands out in my 35 years as a completely avoidable death."

Photos taken shortly after Rhine's death show the fountain built into a cement plaza and surrounded by a knee-high single-chain barrier. Earlier photos of the fountain in action show spouts of water shooting several feet into the air from holes arranged in concentric rings. Lights separate two of the rings.

Rhine's mother brought the lawsuit to ensure that nothing similar  would happen again, Smolar said. The boy's father, Da'Quan Bennett, was also named as a plaintiff. Had the case gone to trial, the family would have had to prove that the school acted willfully and outrageously, Smolar said.

After Rhine's death, college President Sparky Reeves said the school was "deeply saddened" by  the loss of one of its adult education students. The college deferred comment this week to the state attorney general's office, which declined to comment.

The Sumter County Sheriff's Department investigated the case, but prosecutors did not file criminal charges.

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