An Essex County jury on Friday awarded $16.3 million to an Irvington High School student who was left paralyzed from a bathroom beating.
Due to a high-low agreement, Anwar Patterson’s recovery will be capped at $10 million in Patterson v. Irvington Board of Education, ESX-L-1093-09.
Patterson and his assailant, Danzell Ebron, were in the summer-school program at the high school in 2008. On July 14, Ebron was involved in an off-campus, after-school dustup with Patterson’s friends and possibly Patterson himself, according to attorneys in the case.
Ebron, then 17, was arrested. Assistant Principal Andrea Tucker, who learned of the incident, called Irvington police to inform Ebron and his father that Ebron was being dismissed from the summer program.
But Tucker failed to file a dismissal notice with the main office as required by school procedure.
Ebron and his father came to school the next morning, July 15, and told the administrator on duty, Acting Principal Moses McKenzie, that Ebron had been accosted the day before.
McKenzie had not been at school the prior day and was unaware Ebron had been dismissed from the program. Nor was there a record, since Tucker did not file the necessary paperwork. McKenzie said he would investigate, and sent Ebron to class in the interim.
On the way to class, Ebron encountered Patterson, then 15, whom he believed attacked him the day before. The two ended up fighting in a boys’ bathroom. Patterson suffered head and brain injuries that left him paralyzed below the neck.
Ebron pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to five years’ incarceration.
Patterson sued the board of education, contending it failed to meet its duty of protecting students from harm.
The suit charged the school negligently allowed Ebron into the building despite his dismissal the day before. The suit further alleged that Ebron, who had a disciplinary history, should have been dismissed from the summer program even earlier, because he had three unexcused absences the prior week.
The board argued that Ebron was sufficiently notified — by Tucker — that he was not to return to school, and that the school acted reasonably and could not have foreseen Ebron’s retaliatory act. The board also said Ebron’s attendance history wasn’t clear.
During the three-week trial before Superior Court Judge Sebastian Lombardi, the parties entered an agreement guaranteeing a floor recovery of $2 million and ceiling of $10 million.
The eight-member jury unanimously found that the school and Ebron — whom the board named as a third-party defendant — were at fault and proximately caused the accident.
Jurors assigned 80 percent liability to the school and 20 percent to Ebron. They awarded $10 million for future medical expenses, $3.3 million for future pain and suffering, $2 million for future lost wages, $744,000 for past medical expenses, and $350,000 on Patterson’s mother’s loss-of-services claim.
“The jury really understood that the thing could have been avoided and prevented on so many occasions,” says Patterson’s lawyer, Jack Wurgaft of Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins in Springfield.
The school “had no reasonable explanation for anything they did wrong,” he adds.
Ronald Hunt of Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley in Newark, the board’s regular counsel, says the settlement “worked out for everybody” because the plaintiff recovered a large sum, but it was within the board’s insurance coverage. The board is “very saddened by [Patterson's] injuries,” he adds.
Michael Cifelli of Scarinci Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, the board’s outside counsel, confirms the facts but declines further comment. •
David Gialanella is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.