Articles Posted in Injuries to Minors

The parents of a seven year-old Bronx boy filed a notice of a claim against the New York City Police Department for $250 million. Another student at their son’s elementary school accused the boy of stealing five dollars from him, and the parents allege that the police drastically overreacted by detaining him for ten hours. The claim, filed with city officials, is a required step prior to filing a lawsuit for damages against the city.

Police say that they responded to a report of a robbery and assault at PS X114 in the Bronx at around 10:20 a.m. on December 4, 2012, four days after the alleged offense occurred. The child claiming to be the victim of the robbery, a nine year-old whom we shall refer to as A., alleged that another boy, seven year-old W., punched and shoved him, then took five dollars out of his pocket. This occurred off school grounds. A. described W. to the media as “the worst bully,” claiming that W. routinely harassed him. W. denied A.’s allegations, saying that the money had fallen to the ground, and that another boy picked it up. W.’s family alleged that another boy later admitted to the theft.

Instead of sending W. to the principal’s office, the school called the police, who allegedly pulled W. out of class and detained him at the school for about four hours. They then took W. to the 44th Precinct. W.’s mother, Frances Mendez, says that she was not allowed to see W. when she arrived at the station. When officers eventually allowed Mendez and her sister to see W., they claim that they found him in a panicked state with his left wrist handcuffed to a wall. W. allegedly spent six hours at the precinct. Mendez claims that officers “verbally, physically, and emotionally abused” W. during this time, and that they also “intimidated, humiliated, embarrassed and defamed” him.

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An insurance company is not obligated to defend or indemnify its insured in a civil claim for damages arising from acts of sexual abuse of a child, according to a Maryland court’s order. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, ruling in Harrison v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., Civil Action No. ELH-11-1258 (D. Md., Dec. 29, 2011), denied a request for a declaratory judgment that the defendant insurance company had a duty to defend the plaintiff. After the plaintiffs in the civil sex abuse lawsuit intervened in the case, they and the insurance company each filed motions for summary judgment. The court granted the insurance company’s motion and entered a declaratory judgment in its favor. It denied the intervenors’ summary judgment motion.

The chain of events leading to the declaratory judgment action began with a criminal case. William L. Harrison was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in August 2009, and received a ten-year prison sentence. See Harrison v. Maryland, 17 A.3d 144 (Md. Spec. App. 2011). According to the appellate court that affirmed the conviction in 2011, Harrison approached the father of the victim, identified as S.B., in the summer of 2006. He reportedly asked the father if S.B., who was thirteen years old at the time, would be interested in working with him on landscaping and other jobs. S.B. worked for Harrison part-time until the summer of 2007, when S.B. told his mother that Harrison had “touched him inappropriately.” Id. at 145. Harrison was indicted in January 2008.

S.B.’s parents filed a civil lawsuit against Harrison in February 2010 for damages related to the abuse of S.B., identified in that lawsuit as S. Doe. The Does pleaded five causes of action against Harrison: negligence, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a claim for medical expenses. Harrison in turn filed suit against his insurer, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, seeking a declaratory judgment as to its duty to defend him in the Does’ lawsuit. The Does intervened, and both they and the insurance company moved for summary judgment.

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An accident on a Nebraska highway took the lives of a Maryland family. The resulting lawsuit, Baumann v. Slezak, et al, is reportedly the first to invoke that state’s law allowing causes of action for the wrongful death of unborn children. Nebraska’s law, enacted in 2003, differs from Maryland’s wrongful death statute, in that it allows causes of action for prenatal deaths “at any stage of gestation.” Maryland only allows causes of action for the death of viable fetuses.

In the early morning of September 9, 2012, the Schmidt family was stuck in a traffic jam on westbound Interstate 80. The family, which consisted of Christopher and Diana Schmidt and their two children, was driving through western Nebraska on their way from Maryland to California. Diana Schmidt was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with a child they had named Ethan. The couple was driving in separate cars: Diana Schmidt and the two children were in a Toyota Corolla, and Christopher Schmidt was directly behind them in a Ford Mustang. The traffic jam was the result of a deadly collision between two semi-trailers about a mile further up the highway. One semi had become disabled, and although the driver pulled the rig to the side of the road, he allegedly left the trailer blocking traffic. Another semi crashed into the trailer at about 4:30 a.m., killing its driver.

While the Schmidts were stopped at the rear of the long line of traffic, a semi trailer driven by Josef Slezak collided with the back of the Mustang. Slezak was allegedly driving seventy-five miles per hour, and did not make an effort to slow or stop his rig. The collision caused the Mustang to collide with the Corolla, pushing the Corolla under another trailer. All four members of the Schmidt family, as well as their unborn child, died in the collision.

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Recreational trampolines, particularly the kind found in backyards, pose a serious risk of injury to children, according to a paper published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this month. The AAP has long advocated against the recreational use of trampolines, citing the high risk of fractures, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic brain injuries. Other medical associations and the federal government have also noted the hazards of trampolines.

Trampoline use in the home environment remains a popular activity for children and teenagers, despite repeated warnings from the AAP and other groups. The Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, part of the AAP, reported on the risks of trampoline use in the October issue of the AAP’s official journal, Pediatrics. It estimates that around 100,000 trampoline-related injuries occur every year, and that in every year since 2005, they have been responsible for three to four thousand hospitalizations and deaths. This actually represents a decrease in the annual injury rate, which reportedly peaked at the same time as trampoline sales in 2004. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has also noted a direct correlation between the popularity of recreational trampolines and injury rates.

The original purpose of the modern trampoline was athletic training, not recreation, according to the patent obtained in 1945 by competitive gymnast George Nissen. His patent was for a “tumbling device” he intended to use to train gymnasts and acrobats. It later found a use in military aviation training. Recreational trampolines appeared once manufacturers were able to create frames that consumers could assemble at home. The AAP, the AAOS, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) all warn of the dangers inherent in trampoline use. Manufacturers have added safety features in recent years, including padding for trampoline frames and nets to prevent users from falling off the sides, but the AAP reports that these measures have not shown any significant impact on the injury rate.

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Penn State University is reportedly seeking to settle the civil lawsuits filed by victims of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky after a Pennsylvania jury convicted Sandusky on forty-five counts of sexual abuse. This reported intent includes lawsuits that were already filed against the university, and those that are sure to follow. Penn State proposed a process to “address the victims’ concerns and compensate them for claims” related to allegations of abuse by Sandusky and both inaction and concealment by the university. In all likelihood, the university wants to resolve all potential claims quickly. Several lawsuits are already pending in Pennsylvania courts.

Sandusky worked in the Penn State football program for decades, retiring in 1999 but staying on with an “emeritus” title. He founded The Second Mile, a charity intended to help at-risk youth, in 1977. Prosecutors alleged that he used the charity to find his victims. They also alleged that the university knew about allegations of abuse going back years but failed to follow up on reports and investigations. In addition to the charges against Sandusky, prosecutors charged several Penn State administrators with perjury and obstruction of justice. After a trial lasting about a week, a jury convicted Sandusky on all but three charges of sexual abuse, forty-five in total.

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Graduated driver licensing laws (GDL) in Maryland contribute to one of the lowest rates of automobile accident fatalities involving teen drivers, according to a recent study. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), working with State Farm Insurance, reviewed data on nationwide traffic accidents involving teenagers between 2009 and 2010. The study defined “teens” as people ages 15 to 19. Maryland has one of the lowest rates of teen-driver-related fatalities in the nation, and the rate has substantially declined in the past five years. Robust GDL laws, in which teen drivers initially receive highly-restricted driver’s licenses and gradually earn additional privileges, show a strong correlation with low rates of fatal automobile accidents involving teen drivers.

CHOP’s report, entitled “Miles to Go,” provides a “yearly snapshot of teen driver safety for the nation.” The study found over 55,000 serious injuries among teens due to car accidents in the period from 2009 to 2010. Thirty percent of those injuries involved head trauma, such as skull fractures or traumatic brain injuries. Head trauma is the leading cause of death for teens in traffic accidents.

A total of 3,413 car crash fatalities involving teen drivers occurred in 2010. Fatalities include teen drivers, passengers of teen drivers, people in other vehicles, and people not in a vehicle (e.g. pedestrians). The report notes that three out of ten teen fatalities in 2010 involved people outside the teen’s vehicle. The total number of fatalities involving teen drivers nationwide declined by over thirty-five percent between 2005 and 2010.

Nationwide, the fatality rate for auto accidents involving teen drivers was 9.5 per 100,000 people. Maryland had the fifth-lowest rate in the country, with 5.8 per 100,000 people. This is a decline of more than forty-eight percent from 2005. The study’s authors credit strong GDL laws in the states with the lowest fatality rates.

Maryland’s GDL law, known as the “Rookie Driver” program, issues a driver’s license to teens in three stages: a learner’s permit, a provisional license, and a full driver’s license. A teen can apply for a learner’s permit at age 15 years and 9 months. A learner’s permit holder can only drive with a person age 21 or older, who has had a full license for at least three years (known as a “qualified supervising driver”), in the front passenger seat with them.

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Fourteen year-old Anais Fournier, of Hagerstown, was at the mall with friends on December 16, 2011. Her friends told the Record Herald that Fournier drank one 24-ounce energy drink that day, and that she drank another one less than twenty-four hours later. On December 17, she went into cardiac arrest. Doctors at a Baltimore hospital induced a coma to prevent her brain from swelling, but six days later, she died, having never regained consciousness.

Fournier’s death certificate lists “cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity” as her official cause of death. She reportedly suffered a complete lack of oxygen to her brain when she lost consciousness. Fournier had a heart condition that can cause heart valve malfunctions. Doctors did not directly connect her heart condition to the arrhythmia that caused her death, but heart conditions are among the risk factors in scientific studies of energy drinks.

The forty-eight ounces consumed by Fournier reportedly contained 480 milligrams of caffeine, which according to TODAY Health is almost five times the limit that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, and roughly equal to the amount of fourteen 12-ounce cans of Coca-Cola. Many beverages marketed as “energy drinks” contain ingredients like guarana and taurine that themselves contain caffeine, as well as high levels of sodium and sugar. The Record Herald reports that doctors advise parents to keep such energy drinks away from children, citing potential side effects like high blood pressure, seizures, and even death. Energy drinks can be especially dangerous for people with diabetes, high or low blood sugar, or heart conditions.

Fournier’s death has led her family, friends, and others to call for regulation of energy drinks by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Energy drinks are reportedly categorized as “nutritional supplements,” and so are not subject to the FDA’s limit of 71 milligrams of caffeine per 12 ounces in soda. They are also not subject to the FDA’s safety testing and labeling requirements. A press release from the American Beverage Association, issued about a month before Fournier’s death and quoted by the Record Herald, alleged that energy drinks have FDA approval, and that they contain less caffeine than a typical cup of coffee. While an 8-ounce energy drink contains between 60 and 100 milligrams of caffeine, according to the press release, a similar amount of coffee contains between 104 and 192 milligrams.

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A Baltimore girl’s $2 million jury verdict for toxic exposure to lead paint suffered a setback last month, when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the insurance company for the realty company that owned the house where she lived would only be obligated to pay forty percent of the total judgment. She still stands to receive a substantial sum of money, but the court’s ruling cuts the amount she may realistically expect to collect.

Lakia Roberts lived at a house in Baltimore from 1991 to 1998. When she was only twenty months old in 1992, doctors diagnosed her with lead poisoning. She continued to exhibit elevated levels of lead in her blood until 1995. Lead poisoning can have serious health effects on children, including learning disabilities and kidney damage, according to the National Institutes of Health. Roberts and her mother filed a state lawsuit against Attsgood Realty Company in 2005, claiming that the company’s negligent management of the property where they lived caused her lead poisoning.

As we previously reported in this Maryland Accident Law Blog, a jury awarded Robert $2 million in 2009, consisting of $500,000 in actual damages and $1.5 million in non-economic damages. Due to a Maryland law that caps non-economic damages at $350,000, her total judgment was reduced to $850,000.

Attsgood had sought defense and indemnification from its liability insurer, Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Company, commonly known as Penn National. The company had issued an insurance policy to Attsgood with one year of coverage beginning on January 13, 1992, later extended by another year. Attsgood did not have liability coverage on the property before this date. Attsgood sold the property on November 1, 1993. The policy with Penn National stated that it would pay damages for bodily injury and property damage occurring during the term of the policy.

After the jury verdict in 2009, Penn National sought a declaratory judgment in federal court holding that it was only obligated to pay at most $340,000, that being forty percent of the judgment against Attsgood. It argued that, since Roberts’ claim was for ongoing damages occurring from her birth on January 17, 1991 until August 1995, when the lead in her blood reached normal levels, it should only be obligated pay pay for the damages that occurred after its coverage began on January 13, 1992 and before Attsgood sold the property in November 1993. Roberts argued that Penn National should be obligated to pay the full amount of the judgment.

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A Maryland teenager died the evening of Saturday, February 18, 2012, when he fell from a moving car and was struck by another vehicle. Michael Truluck, age 13, had allegedly consumed an energy drink containing alcohol earlier in the evening with friends. He was reportedly feeling sick, and his friends said he had vomited twice when his mother’s fiance came to pick him up. During the ride home, he reportedly removed his seat belt and opened the car door, while the car was in motion, in order to vomit again. He fell out and was struck by a Ford Explorer. Police have said they will not file charges against the driver of the Explorer.

Initial news reports indicated that the boys were drinking Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage once marketed as an energy drink. Subsequent reports from the Associated Press said that it was not clear exactly what drink they were consuming. Police were also not sure who provided them with the drinks, although they suspect an adult in the neighborhood. Truluck’s mother has stated that she believes the drink caused her son’s death by making him so ill that he lost control of his actions. She told the Baltimore Sun that she believes he was so sick because of the drink that he was not aware of anything except the need to vomit. She is now speaking out against underage drinking.

The beverage marketed as “Four Loko” has already had a controversial history. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings that mixing caffeine or other chemicals often used in energy drinks with alcohol posed a number of health risks. It can prevent a person from full awareness of their own intoxication because the caffeine or other supplement masks the direct effect of the alcohol, but the person is nevertheless impaired. The FDA called this a “wide-awake drunk” effect. Four Loko’s manufacturer, Phusion Projects, reportedly reformulated the drink in 2010 to remove caffeine, but it continued to include alcohol in the formula. Some states banned the sale of the drinks when several college students died after allegedly consuming Four Loko.

The family of a teenager in the D.C. area who died in a car accident after allegedly drinking Four Loko filed suit against Phusion in 2011 fro wrongful death, alleging that the company was negligent in producing a drink that “desensitizes users to the symptoms of intoxication,” thus increasing the risk of injury. His death occurred a few weeks before Phusion announced its reformulation.

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Maryland’s Court of Appeals issued a ruling in late October that strikes down a state law shielding rental property owners from liability to their tenants for lead paint exposure if those owners could show they took precautions to protect children from such exposure. The unanimous ruling held that the statute violated the Maryland Constitution by denying victims of lead paint poisoning their day in court. The court left the regulatory portions of the law in place.

Maryland enacted the law in question, the Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act, in 1994 as a compromise after lengthy negotiations between public health advocates and property owners. Lead paint poisoning had once been a huge problem for children in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore, but advocates of the law claim the rate of lead poisoning has decreased by 98 percent since the law passed. The law requires owners of rental properties built prior to 1950 to register with the Maryland Department of the Environment and to take steps to remediate lead content in their properties, such as by removing known lead-painted surfaces and removing lead dust. The Department of the Environment states that around 73,000 rental units are registered, nearly all built before 1950. Baltimore banned lead inside homes in 1950, and the rest of the state followed in 1978.

The troublesome portion of the law involves the liability of rental property owners to their tenants when exposure does occur. If a property owner has complied with the regulatory provisions of the law, their liability is limited to $17,000, which might cover the costs of relocating to a lead-free residence but does not compensate for injuries that can last a lifetime. Exposure to lead-based paint can cause severe injuries, including brain damage.

The lawsuit, Jackson v. Dackman Co., et al, sought damages for brain damage allegedly suffered by ZiTashia Jackson when she ingested lead-based paint while residing at two different addresses in Baltimore, both owned by the Dackman Company. According to the complaint, the lease did not note chipping or flaking paint or other similar hazards, but both were rampant in both apartments. The tenants allegedly complained to the landlord, but no repairs occurred. Since the property owners had registered with the state and undertaken remediation efforts, its liability was limited by the statute, cutting off the plaintiffs’ claims for negligence and deceptive trade practices. The defendants obtained summary judgment, the plaintiffs appealed, and the case made its way to the Court of Appeals.

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