Family of teen injured by falling tree wins damages

Battle Ground school district’s insurer failed to respond to lawsuit

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 3, 2011, 7:53 PM

 

A Clark County judge on Tuesday ordered Battle Ground Public Schools to pay $129,185 in damages to the family of a teenage boy who was struck in 2009 by a falling tree at Yacolt Primary School.

The school district lost the case by default after its representatives failed to respond to the family’s lawsuit.

Upon hearing that the boy suffered a skull fracture and spent five days in a hospital after being hit by the tree, Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard ruled that the school district should pay $55,000 in economic damages and $55,000 in non-economic damages to Christine and Joshua Letts.

About $18,000 was also awarded to cover attorney’s fees and the parents’ loss of wages when they stayed home to care for their son, Trae Letts.

The lawsuit means the school district is on the hook for a $1,000 deductible. However, the district won’t see rising insurance rates, said school district spokesman Gregg Herrington.

Noticeably absent from Tuesday’s hearing was an attorney for either the district or its insurance company, Canfield Solutions of Ephrata.

Neither the district or the insurance company responded to the lawsuit, served March 3, so the judge made a default judgment.

“They had 20 days to respond” by state law, said William Baumgartner, attorney for the Yacolt family. “We gave them two months.”

When reached by telephone Tuesday afternoon, a representative for Canfield Solutions could not explain why a company attorney did not respond to the lawsuit. Herrington said school officials turned the case over to the insurance company, and assumed it was being litigated.

A litigation specialist “told me the absence of a Canfield attorney at today’s proceeding and the lack of a response to the summons was not the result of a decision by Canfield but that ‘it appears it might be an oversight’ on Canfield’s part,” Herrington said in an email.

“‘We’re looking into it,’ he said,” Herrington said.

Baumgartner told the judge Tuesday that the school district officials were negligent because they knowingly had old, rotting trees on property at Yacolt Primary School. District officials had received complaints from people concerned about these old trees adjacent to the school’s playground. Several of the trees had ropes from which children could swing.

“But they did not remove all those trees,” the attorney said.

It was a work day for teachers but not students on April 10, 2009, when Trae Letts, then a student at the Yacolt school, was swinging from a rope attached to a tree limb. Meanwhile, other kids were pushing on the tree. That’s when the trunk snapped and fell on the boy, then 13, Baumgartner said.

Another child called 911 and he was rushed to a local hospital. Trae Letts was unconscious for 30 minutes, Baumgartner said.

Baumgartner said the boy has since recovered, but still battles intermittent headaches. Once passionate about football, Trae Letts can no longer play because of his coach’s fear of further head injuries.

Trae Letts “has incurred physical handicap and disability in connection with usual activities, loss of nonmarket services and an impairment of his ability to enjoy life,” the lawsuit stated.

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516; Twitter: Col_Courts; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.