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In a recent opinion the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed a jury verdict awarding $2.5 million to the estate of a deceased high school student.  The award stemmed from the jury’s finding that the student’s teacher engaged in “willful and wanton misconduct” when he failed to immediately call 911 after the student suddenly collapsed in his classroom.

In 2008, Jeffrey Stewart, an 18-year-old student at Oswego Community High School, suddenly collapsed in his English class and died just minutes later.  The autopsy report stated the cause of death as bronchial asthma.  After Stewart collapsed, his teacher, Stacy Harper, ran to Stewart’s side and told two students to travel by foot to get the school nurse.

At the time, Oswego Community High School had a policy listed in its handbook under “Medical Emergency,” which stated that a teacher should immediately call or direct another person to call 911 if a student suffers a life-and-death episode.  Contrary to this policy, though, Harper did not call 911 for another 7-20 minutes after Stewart’s collapse.  Moreover, Harper only called 911 after he was specifically prompted to do so by a school nurse.  While Harper did not have a cell phone, as cell phones in the classroom were prohibited, there was a phone in the classroom.

The main issue presented was whether Harper acted “willfully and wantonly” in his response to Stewart’s collapse.  Willful and wanton conduct is an aggravated form of negligence, which requires either a deliberate intention to harm or an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the welfare of the plaintiff.  In addressing the question of willful and wanton conduct, factors courts have considered include whether there was: (1) a deviation from standard operating procedures or a policy violation; (2) an unjustifiably lengthy response time; or (3) an unjustifiably inadequate response to a known danger.  Using these factors as guidance, the appellate court concluded that the jury could have reasonably found that Harper’s conduct amounted to willful and wanton conduct.  Being characterized as such means that the school district could not avail itself of its immunity from suit under the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act.

In contrast to the court’s analysis, the school district argued that Harper should be insulated from the allegation of willful and wanton conduct because he “took action” by running to Stewart’s side and directing two students to get the school nurse.  While the appellate court agreed that these actions alone did not constitute willful and wanton conduct, it rejected the argument that they insulated Harper from liability.  The court focused on the fact that after these actions, which could not have taken more than one to two minutes, Harper remained beside Stewart for an additional 6 to 19 minutes, during which he had a continuing duty to act.  Therefore, the jury was not required to focus solely on Harper’s initial inactions of sending for the nurse and running to Stewart’s aide, but also could consider Harper’s subsequent inaction of waiting 7 to 20 minutes to call or direct someone to call 911. Ultimately, the court concluded that this case was not about Harper’s initial action, but rather about his subsequent inaction.

In the end, the appellate court affirmed the jury’s verdict that Harper had engaged in willful and wanton conduct by failing to call or direct someone to call 911 for 7-20 minutes after Stewart collapsed, thereby upholding the $2.5 million verdict for Stewart’s Estate.

The ruling emphasizes the key importance of compliance with established school board policies and procedures.

Contact Vanessa Clohessy or Kaitlin Atlas with questions about this case.