Lawsuit alleging negligence in injury of La Cañada High student to be heard by jury

Attorneys representing a La Cañada High School senior are preparing for a Jan. 22 trial against La Cañada Unified School District, claiming negligence by district employees led to the student’s serious injury during a May 2016 school assembly.

According to a trial brief filed with the Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday, representatives from the Los Angeles law firm Panish Shea & Boyle allege special education student Ethan Kalnins was attending an end-of-the-school-year assembly in the school’s Hotchkin Family Gymnasium on May 20, 2016, when he fell from the bleachers and fractured his left hip.

Kalnins, now 18, has cerebral palsy and left-side hemiparesis, or weakness on that half of his body, which complicated the effects of the injury he sustained, according to attorney Robert Glassman. The attorney claims the telescopic bleachers were missing guardrails that could have prevented Kalnins’ fall.

“He was sitting on these bleachers that did not have any guardrails,” the attorney said in a telephone interview Monday, adding that an aide was supposed to be watching him but wasn’t. “After the assembly was over, he fell off of [the bleachers] on his left side.”

Immediately following the incident, Kalnins was transported to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, where he underwent hip surgery, the court document states. The teen spent nearly a month afterward rehabilitating at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and was confined to a wheelchair throughout that summer.

The initial complaint against LCUSD was filed on July 20 of that year, with Kalnins’ mother, Theresa Beaton, named his guardian ad litem to represent her son’s interests in court. Glassman said a safety and engineering expert inspected the bleachers in December 2016 and found railings that were supposed to have been installed on the bleachers locked up in a corner of the gym.

In a deposition, then-Chief Business and Operating Officer Mark Evans testified custodians at the high school had admitted to him the guardrails had “been there for several years. And they simply had not ever installed them to their memory,” according to the brief.

Further, Kalnins’ attorneys claim a 2009 report put out by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, called “Guidelines for Retrofitting Bleachers,” stated that in 1999, an estimated 22,100 bleacher-associated injuries, 4,910 of which involved children under age 15, were treated in emergency rooms nationwide.

The report recommends guardrails be present on the backs and portions of the open ends of bleachers where the footboard, seatboard or aisle is 30 inches or more above the floor or ground below.

“La Cañada (Unified) had the access to the information, they knew of the information and despite two decades of bleacher-related injuries and hazards, they still did not put up those guardrails,” Glassman said.

According to the plaintiff’s trial brief, safety guardrails were installed on the bleachers in August of this year at a cost to the district of $25,000. Now attorneys are seeking compensation for the cost of Kalnins’ past and future medical care, and for the pain and suffering he endured during the incident and continues to endure, Glassman said.

The teen returned to school in fall of 2016 with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) stipulating his need for a one-to-one specialized education aide, multiple physical therapy sessions each week and regular counseling sessions with the school therapist to help him cope with the anxiety of returning to school, according to Glassman. All his classes had to be on the ground floor and a wheelchair made available. The trial brief alleges the student still struggles emotionally and has anxiety and fear about being near the school’s bleachers.

Glassman said while it’s encouraging the lawsuit has been a catalyst for the district’s installing the safety guardrails, his firm is still seeking compensation from school district officials who have yet to offer a settlement.

“They have not made any offer to settle or pay Ethan any money,” he said.

In an email statement Monday, however, LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette claimed differently.

“The district has not only made efforts to settle, but has also rectified the very condition that is the subject of the plaintiff’s complaint,” Sinnette said, adding she could not comment further out of respect for the plaintiff’s privacy.

Representatives from both parties are scheduled to appear at a final status conference to be held at Los Angeles Superior Court in advance of the Jan. 22 jury trial.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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