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Panel suggests wrongful death suit for parents of drowning victim

The difference between negligence and recklessness was the turning point in a Wisconsin federal appeals case. The parents of a Milwaukee boy killed in an accident on a school field trip lost a claim that blamed school administrators for violating the 12-year-old's constitutional rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed with a lower court that granted summary judgment for the defendants. An appeals panel could not agree that due process of the boy's rights was violated. The panel suggested the parents and child's estate could file a wrongful death lawsuit instead.

Wisconsin laws set a cap that prevents plaintiffs in a single-victim, wrongful death lawsuit from collecting more than $50,000 from public employees. The panel recognized the damage limitations but admitted matters were beyond the court's control.

The case stemmed from a student's drowning at Kettle Moraine State Forest. The boy was among a group of seventh graders at Roosevelt Middle School who had parental permission slips to swim during the field trip.

Regular district policies did not permit students on field trips to swim where lifeguards were not employed. An exception was made on the day the boy drowned in an unguarded lake.

The federal appeals panel stated that school officials may have been negligent but did not cross the border into reckless behavior. The judges said school administrators did seek parents' permission and were unaware that the student who drowned was not a skilled swimmer.

According to the three-member panel, negligence plays no part in due process determinations. The judges felt the child's death could have been caused by carelessness but was not the result of a reckless act by school officials.

A Wisconsin personal injury attorney can help plaintiffs assess a case before time and money are invested in a civil action. Boundaries in Wisconsin liability laws may discourage plaintiffs from receiving large damage amounts, a consideration that requires honest evaluation.

Source: wisbar.org, "Parents Lose Federal Lawsuit Against School Administrators in Field Trip Drowning Case," Joe Forward, Dec. 27, 2012

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