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In 2001, juries handed down more verdicts of $1 million or more than they did in 1997 for similar types of claims. Based on information compiled by the New York Jury Verdict Reporter, in New York state, the number of school accident verdicts in 2001 totaling $1 million or more was six; four were against the city of New York. Only two verdicts in 1997 were more than $1 million, and both were reduced significantly post-trial. The highest verdicts for 2001 involved the same types of claims — negligent supervision, defective maintenance and dangerous conditions — as the highest verdicts of 1997. But a comparison of the 2001 and 1997 verdicts shows that juries may not be on the same wavelength as they were five years ago. In the fourth-highest verdict of 1997, a teacher who slipped and fell in a school cafeteria received $297,000 from a Bronx Supreme Court jury; but in the largest verdict of 2001, a Bronx Supreme Court jury awarded $2.6 million to a teacher who also slipped and fell in a cafeteria. In the fifth-largest verdict of 1997, a student who brought a suit after tripping and landing on tar and glass shards, alleging that the City Board of Education did not correct a condition that it knew had existed for years, was awarded $250,000 by a Bronx Civil Court. By contrast, in the second-highest verdict of 2001, a student who stepped into a hole while playing football, claiming that the city knew of the condition and was negligent for not correcting it, was awarded $2.5 million by a Brooklyn Supreme Court. Different injuries, of course, may explain why the plaintiffs were awarded such dramatically different amounts of money. Still, what explains the increased amounts of money for similar claims? Has it become easier to hold schools liable for injuries suffered on their premises? Or has recent media attention on school conditions ignited juries to punish cities and school boards in order to force them to make schools safer? According to Fay Leoussis, chief of the Corporation Counsel’s Tort Division, there is not a new trend in school claim verdicts. She said that although there has always been a “general consensus that schools are more liable because there are children involved,” juries in general across the country are giving higher awards. Michael A. Madonna of New York’s Trolman, Glaser & Lichtman, does not necessarily agree. Madonna was the plaintiffs’ attorney in the third-highest school accident verdict in 2001 involving a plaintiff who was assaulted by a fellow student with a razor or box cutter. In addition, he has handled a fair share of school accident cases, including several in which plaintiffs have died. Madonna concedes that it is difficult to prove liability against schools because there are often several individuals involved who could be held responsible for injuries suffered by plaintiffs. But he believes that juries are awarding the higher verdicts largely because when the facts of a case come out in court, juries are “shocked to see what is going on in the schools,” especially when there is such a strong public consensus to give schools more support. Leoussis points out, though, that claims against schools are not usually the big-ticket assault cases — and sometimes even murder cases — that the media gives the most attention. In reality, Leoussis said, claims against the City Board of Education are usually low-level injury claims to recoup medical expenses for common accidents like falldowns. Therefore, the top eight verdicts of 2001 are not representative of the awards in most school accident cases. Leoussis estimates, though, that school cases comprise about 10 percent of the Corporation Counsel’s caseload, so there have been “more aggressive efforts” on the part of the Corporation Counsel and the city comptroller’s office to settle claims against schools rather than have them go to trial. Leoussis cautions that despite the high verdicts given out in 2001 for school accident cases, settlements are really the wave of the future. She points to The School Team project, instituted in September 1997 by the New York City comptroller’s office to evaluate claims against the City Board of Education for settlement potential. According to the city comptroller’s office, the 953 claims settled through the program from its inception to June 2000, have cost the city $4.2 million. It is estimated that if those claims had gone to trial, they would have cost the city $18.5 million, with an average cost of $19,412 per claim. But the comptroller and corporation counsel may need to do more to get the word out to plaintiffs’ attorneys that they would prefer to settle. “I wouldn’t necessarily agree that there is an aggressive effort,” Madonna said, adding that the options for settlement are often not “realistic.” Mitchell D. Frankel, a partner at Sussman & Frankel, who represented the plaintiffs on the seventh-highest verdict of 2001 involving a student who was injured during gym class, echoed this sentiment. Frankel said that offers for settlement tend to contain “numbers that are low and oftentimes are not realistic for settlement.” Related charts: Largest School Accident Verdicts of 1997 Largest School Accident Verdicts of 2001 Largest Jury Verdicts in Falldown Cases of 2001

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