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A statute enacted in 1973 to pay for teachers’ medical and economic losses, above workers’ compensation payments, from an on-the-job assault never defined what “assault” means. Before last month, no Connecticut court had either. For teacher’s assistant driver Dean Petrie, hundreds of thousands of dollars in claimed damages were riding on how New Haven Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Corradino construed the word “assault” in that statute, C.G.S. � 10-236a. Petrie, now 42, was injured when a student jumped on his back. He received workers’ compensation benefits, but sued under the teacher assault statute for lost wages and ongoing medical care for a foot injury. Petrie’s lawyer is Jan P. van der Werff, of the Law Offices of Jefferson D. Jelly in West Hartford. Andrew A. Cohen, of New Haven’s Letizia, Ambrose & Falls, represents the defendant Area Cooperative Education Services, which schools “special needs” students. Petrie’s brief argued that “assault” should include everything that is considered assault in Connecticut’s statutes and case law. This would include civil and criminal assaults, both intentional and unintentional. Corradino had little to guide him. The legislative history of the teacher assault law was unhelpful, both sides agreed. In 2003, the legislature passed a bill directing that statutes be read with their “plain meaning” unless doing so would yield an absurd or unworkable result. Consulting three dictionaries, Corradino found that “assault” could mean a military charge, a violent attack, a rape or a threatening without physical touching. Corradino quoted a remark in the Petrie brief that “‘Assault’ and ‘Battery’ have become inadvertently synonymous.” But van der Werff contended that neither criminality nor intent were necessary for an assault, citing case law squarely recognizing “negligent assault.” In his opinion, written long after a three-day bench trial last December, the judge wound up refusing to include “negligent assault” as part of the statute’s meaning. Doing so, he wrote, would require schools to become highly-regimented places. Corradino rambled, ruminated and raised rhetorical questions in the 25-page opinion. Ultimately he had no clear analytical or policy explanation when he abruptly rejected a definition that would create a right for a teacher injured “by a 12-year-old rambunctiously running down a hallway” or by “walking through a merry game of tag during recess.” Obliquely, he hinted that cost might be a factor if the definition was interpreted broadly. He concluded “assault” in the teacher reimbursement law must mean “an intentionally violent and hostile attack on another person.” CHANGING STORY As the judge recounts it, Petrie initially said two youths were “fooling around, yelling, bumping into each other” in the periphery of a classroom. When he started to find a teacher, Petrie was blind-sided when one youth jumped on his back, threw his arms around his neck and whispered in his ear that he wanted a piggyback ride. At trial, Corradino said Petrie “embellished” his testimony. When asked whether the boy “kind of whispered in your ear, true?” Petrie replied the child “hissed it … it was more of a gritty kind of ‘give me a piggyback ride, Petrie.’ It was menacing.” The most damaging testimony came from another teacher’s assistant driver, Maude Robarge, the judge noted. She had dated Petrie for seven years, and the two were still friendly. Indeed, the judge watched through a courtroom window and saw Robarge give Petrie’s father a friendly embrace after she testified and had exited the courtroom. He had the court reporter make a note of that in the record. Corradino noted that he found Robarge honest and straightforward, but disbelieved Petrie’s father, when he said he hadn’t researched the teacher assault law until recently. Robarge testified that Petrie first described the incident as a playful one, but that “[i]t became an assault very shortly afterwards.” Robarge testified, “I believe his father had given — had looked up some information to find out about a new statute, or a statute in Connecticut that if [...] a person had been attacked by a student, then the town the student was from was responsible for expenses for the rest of the life for the person.” Petrie testified that he gave a long incident report to nurse Joan Tenedine, but it was rejected as too wordy. He also said he filed a behavioral report, but “several” school witnesses denied any knowledge of such a report. The judge noted evidence that Petrie had memory problems, and acknowledged the contradictions could have completely innocent explanations. “Somewhat more disturbing,” Corradino wrote, was Petrie’s meeting with the school principal, in which he brought gifts for her cats and “told her he needed her support and toughness to get him through the trial.” This was after he’d stopped describing the incident as a playful episode, and was characterizing it as an attack or assault. In light of all this, Corradino concluded Petrie had failed to prove the teacher assault statute should apply to him, and entered judgment for the school. Defense lawyer Cohen said the decision clarifies an important question for teachers and school boards statewide. He praised the decision as sound, but said the plaintiff’s side “had said they would appeal this because of the importance of the issues. This is not a minor injury, of a fairly young man, with totally disabling injuries from their point of view.” Cohen said the school entirely disputes Petrie’s damage claims, which in settlement talks were “well into the six figures.” Petrie’s attorney, van der Werff, said his client unfortunately couldn’t afford to appeal. “I would have loved to appeal it. It clearly was a civil assault and he had devastating injuries as a result.”

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