(CN) - A Pennsylvania school district must face claims that a teacher forced an inexperienced 15-year-old sophomore to swim, leading to his death from seizure shortly awards, a federal judge ruled.
The incident occurred on Dec. 2, 2010, about a month after Juanya Spady, 15, transferred to Liberty High School in Pennsylvania's Bethlehem Area School District.
Though Juanya had told his gym teacher, Carlton Rodgers, that he could not swim and did not feel well that morning, several students testified that that after Juanya got out of the pool, the teacher ordered him to get back in.
Rodgers testified that he said Juanya could go see the nurse if he wanted, but the students claim the teacher said he would deduct points from their grades if they did not get in the pool and swim, even if they were not feeling well.
In Juanya's next class, his English teacher heard a noise and noticed that Juanya's head was down on his desk and that he seemed to be having a seizure, with labored breathing and a pink, frothy substance coming out of his nose and mouth.
School nurses soon responded, called 911, and gave Juanya CPR and two electric shocks to his chest with an automated external defibrillator, but the frothy substance kept bubbling out.
Paramedics then took Juanya to St. Luke's Hospital around 11 a.m., but emergency room staff were unable to save him, and he was pronounced dead later that day.
Two years later, Juanya's mother, Mica Spady, filed suit on behalf of herself and her son's estate against Rodgers, the district, the unnamed English teacher and several others, but later amended her complaint to withdraw claims against the nurses who attended to her son, the district superintendent, and the high school principal.
The amended complaint asserts 14th Amendment due process violations and municipal liability for deliberate indifference, as well as state-law wrongful death and survival.
After the defendants' motion to dismiss was denied earlier this year, they moved for summary judgment on the constitutional claims on June 24.
U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky denied the motion in Philadelphia last week.
"The day after Juanya died, Dr. Isidore Mihalakis performed an autopsy and attributed his death to 'a seizure disorder the [cause] of which was not visually, microscopically, or toxicologically apparent' (quoting from the medical examiner's report)," Slomsky wrote (parentheses in original). "However, plaintiff's expert, Cyril H. Wecht M.D., J.D., opined that 'Juanya Spady died from delayed drowning due to chemical-related toxicity produced by the swimming pool chlorine.' In addition, defendant's expert, Wayne K. Ross M.D., opined that Juanya died from congestive heart failure. The credibility of these expert witnesses is in dispute, and the cause of Juanya's death is a material fact for the jury to determine."
It is also disputed whether Rodgers used his authority to force Juanya to swim despite his inexperience and ill health on the "undeniably tragic" day, according to the ruling.
"Moreover, whether the harm to Juanya was foreseeable, whether Juanya himself was a foreseeable victim, and whether Rodgers' conduct shocks the conscience are all questions of fact for a jury to answer," Slomsky wrote. "Because various, material, factual disputes must be resolved in order to determine whether Rodgers violated Juanya's constitutional rights on Dec. 2, 2010, summary judgment is inappropriate."
The judge found it unclear whether the district was deliberately indifferent by failing to train Rodgers and other personnel about the symptoms of delayed drowning.
"A jury must resolve these issues, and therefore, summary judgment is inappropriate on plaintiff's municipal liability claim," Slomsky wrote.