The parents of a Palo Alto Unified School District student who faces long-term eye damage from an injury sustained during a potato-gun experiment at JLS Middle School have filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the district and two employees.
In a claim filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Feb. 7, the parents allege that the district and teachers breached their duty to conduct the experiment "with reasonable care" and to protect the student from "foreseeable dangers."
Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks said she cannot comment on existing litigation.
The claim alleges that the student, then 13 years old, was participating in a school experiment with homemade potato guns on May 12, conducting mathematical calculations based on the distance the potato traveled. Students inserted the potato down the barrel and pressurized it using a bicycle pump, the claim states. To shoot the gun, a valve between the top and bottom of the gun would be released, allowing the pressurized air to launch the potato, according to the claim.
When it was the student's turn to operate the gun, he turned the valve to release the pressure and "nothing happened," the claim states. "After several seconds the gun suddenly discharged striking (the student) in his face and causing significant permanent injuries."
Paul Van Der Walde, the family's attorney, said the student was not looking down the barrel of the gun but "his eye was in the general vicinity above the potato gun."
The claim names the Palo Alto school district, JLS math teachers Elizabeth Fee and Sue Duffek and volunteer Cass Apple as defendants. Apple is Fee's father and has helped conduct this same experiment for several years at the school, Van Der Walde said.
The family alleges that the adults failed to provide proper supervision and adequate safety training for the experiment. The school district also breached its duty by allowing Apple, a volunteer with no teaching credential, to conduct the experiment on campus, the claim argues.
The alleged incident has permanently damaged the student's retina, Van Der Walde said, and caused an orbital fracture, or a traumatic injury to the bone of the eye socket. Fatty infiltrate is propping up his eye rather than the bone structure of the socket, Van Der Walde said. The orbital fracture will require surgery this summer.
The alleged incident also left his pupil fixed in a "more open position" so the student has light sensitivity in that eye, his lawyer said. Because the optical nerve is connected to both eyes, he is also experiencing light sensitivity in the other eye, according to Van Der Walde.
The student is now at "heightened risk" for traumatic glaucoma, which is most commonly caused by blunt trauma to the eye, and will be monitored for this risk for the rest of his life, the lawyer said.
The student was homebound for several months after the incident. He can no longer participate in activities such as taekwondo and playing the saxophone, at the risk of dislodging the fatty infiltrate that is propping up his eye, his lawyer said.
Van Der Walde has not requested a specific amount in damages but said a focus group he hired to evaluate the case estimated $4 million, which is "probably in line with what our thoughts were."
Van Der Walde said the school district rejected the family's claim before they filed the lawsuit.
A case management conference is scheduled for May 29, at which point they will discuss possible mediation or how to proceed, Van Der Walde said.