Victim in 2018 magnet school lab fire awarded $133K

Hendersonville Fire Chief Scotty Bush and Sumner County Director of Schools Del Phillips answered questions from the media following a flash fire at Merrol Hyde Magnet School in May of 2018.

A judge has ordered the Sumner County Board of Education to pay a former Merrol Hyde Magnet School student $133,283 for injuries she sustained in a 2018 flash fire at the school.

Emergency crews evacuated the K-12 school just before 9 a.m. on May 9, 2018 after a science experiment involving the mixture of boric acid and ethyl alcohol ignited a brief explosion. The teacher conducting the experiment and eight students were treated at two local hospitals and released the same day. Nine other students were treated at the scene for their injuries.

The parents of two students filed separate lawsuits against the school district in Sumner County Circuit Court in March and April of 2019. Both lawsuits claimed the school district was negligent in allowing the teacher to conduct the experiment and said the fire caused permanent physical and/or mental health damage.

A settlement agreement was reached with the parents of one of the students in April of 2020 for $20,000.

In the second lawsuit filed April 3, 2019 by a mother on behalf of her daughter who was 15 years old at the time of the incident, the mother alleged the classroom explosion caused serious, permanent injuries to her daughter. The mother sought a total of $850,000 in damages for medical bills, lost wages and emotional distress.

In June of 2020, the school district admitted the incident was caused by the actions of its employee, a science teacher who no longer works for the school district, and didn’t dispute liability. However, the school district denied the nature and extent of the victim’s injuries and losses claimed by the mother, and the case went to trial in October of 2021.

During the bench trial on Oct. 5, Circuit Court Judge Joe Thompson heard testimony from several witnesses including the victim who is now a college student, as well as two physicians who treated her.

The daughter testified that she was in English class that day, but was sent to a chemistry teacher’s class to be supervised. The teacher was preparing an experiment for a later class that involved mixing and burning chemicals when an explosion occurred.

The daughter was transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where she was treated in the emergency department and released the same day.

A physician testified the student suffered “scattered superficial, partial thickness burns to the forehead, eyelids, cheeks, nose, lips, chin, right ear and right upper extremity,” and had some permanent scarring as a result.

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order issued June 14, Thompson awarded the victim $7,500 for past physical pain and suffering and mental anguish; $10,000 for permanent injury; $2,500 for future physical pain and suffering and mental anguish; $20,000 for disfigurement/scarring; $77,858 for future medical damages and $15,424.91 for past medical damages for a total of $133,282.91.

Rocky McElhaney, the victim’s attorney, said the judgment was three times what the Sumner County Board of Education offered his client a month before trial.

Still, McElhaney said he was disappointed in the amount awarded.

“I am extremely disappointed that the judge did not give this young lady who was burned and has permanent scars the maximum amount allowed against the government of $300,000,” he said. “This judgment is wholly insufficient to compensate her for the rest of her life…This is partial justice.”

McElhaney thinks the judgment would have been more if a jury had been allowed to hear the case.

“I think the judgment would have been significantly more if we could have had a jury hear Daughter Doe’s story, but that’s not allowed in cases against a government school system,” he said.

Sumner County Law Director Leah Dennen declined to comment for this story.

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