A San Joaquin Valley school district agreed Wednesday to pay $10.5 million to a former student who suffered brain damage during a pep rally, when he was attacked and beaten while wearing the costume of a chicken -- the mascot of a rival football team.
The Kern County High School District agreed to settle the lawsuit filed by Mitch Carter. The vast majority of the award will be paid by the district’s insurance carrier.
The announcement of the settlement brought a swift end to the damages phase of the trial, when jurors decide how much money to award. On Monday, jurors found the school district liable for Carter’s injuries.
In December 2010, Carter -- then 17 years old -- was wearing a chicken costume as part of a skit at Bakersfield High School that mocked the mascot of Clovis West High School in Clovis.
During the pep rally, students, including members of the varsity football team, swarmed Carter, landing kicks and blows and piling onto him, according to the complaint filed in Kern County Superior Court.
“He was put in the most hated, personified figure at that time: the opposing team’s mascot,” said one of his attorneys, Beverly Hills-based lawyer Nicholas Rowley. “They dressed him up and had him play the fool.”
After the attack, Carter incurred a mild traumatic brain injury and suffered damage to his pituitary gland, Rowley said. Carter has suffered anxiety and depression and has faced difficulty in school, earning failing grades in his courses.
“It changed his whole personality,” Rowley said. “The boy that left that morning to go to school never came back home.”
Medical bills have totaled about $103,000 thus far, and future medical care is estimated to cost about $5 million, the attorney added.
Midway through the skit but before the public beating, Carter had tried to stop his performance. After two students hit and knocked him over, he told a school administrator that he would not continue wearing the chicken costume, Rowley said.
The administrator scolded Carter, telling him he’d have to pay the $75 cost to rent the chicken costume if he did not continue the skit, the attorney said.
Carter’s attorneys noted that the student wasn’t the first person to be assaulted while wearing a costume at a pep rally.
In 2005, a Bakersfield High School teacher wore a costume of an opposing team’s mascot and ended up with a torn rotator cuff, five broken ribs and back injuries.
The lawsuit contended that the school neglected to quickly intervene after students mobbed Carter. Rowley claimed that the school created an environment that, in effect, permitted violence.
Attorneys for the school district countered that Carter volunteered to wear the chicken costume for the skit, which was performed without school approval.
“The reason things got out of hand is because Bret Mitchell Carter took it upon himself to create a skit unapproved that was poorly planned, ill advised and caused things to go south,” defense attorney Michael Kellar told the jurors, according to the Bakersfield Californian.
“Mr. Carter’s motivated by greed for money to tell absurd stories in an effort to justify how this went down.”
In a statement released to the Bakersfield Californian on Wednesday, the school district said it understood why its insurance carrier opted to reach a settlement.
“The district is going to take this opportunity to evaluate its standards, policies and practices to ensure that every student is educated in a safe and secure environment -- because every parent and student should expect nothing less.”
Ralph Wegis, the Bakersfield-based attorney who has represented Carter since the beginning of the case, said the jury’s decision and the sizable settlement pointed to more systemic problems facing the school district.
“Things need to be changed,” Wegis said. “People need to be protected from going through what this family has gone through.”
After the settlement was announced, Carter joined his mother and attorney for a news conference and said the sizable award did not make him feel vindicated.
“I just wanted people to hear my story,” Carter said. “I would trade everything just to have a full functioning brain.”
Carter said he hoped to finish college and attend law school in the future, adding: “I want to be able to stand up for people that need their voices heard.”
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8:50 p.m.: This article was updated throughout.
This article was originally published at 5:15 p.m.