A family whose special-needs daughter had two broken legs in 2006 sued the Gilbert Unified School District after the parents claimed the injuries were caused in school during therapy sessions.
The case went to trial in Maricopa County Superior Court, and a jury awarded 16-year-old Stephanie Gray $215,612.50 in September for damages and future medical expenses.
But now the district is going after the parents for court costs.
Stephanie’s parents, James Bradford “Brad” Gray and Patricia “Patty” Gray of Gilbert, said they asked the jury not to award them any money, even though they could have received about $2,500 each.
Because the parents declined any settlement for themselves, the Gilbert district is now legally able to seek legal fees estimated at $6,500, which is a portion of the district’s court costs.
The parents’ decision “certainly appears strategic and born only out of a fear that the jury had begun to see the case as a money grab,” according to a Gilbert district statement released to the Tribune.
The Grays said it’s a “slap in the face” that the district would spend more money and time to seek money from the family after their daughter’s injuries and after the jury’s outcome.
“We told the jury we didn’t want the money because it was all about Stephanie,” said Patty Gray, 47, a mechanical engineer. “The school broke Stephanie’s legs. Isn’t that enough? In the grand scheme of things, this is so wrong.”
In hindsight, the parents said they wish they hadn’t withdrawn their request for money.
However, the district is claiming no responsibility for Stephanie’s fractures, and officials said they tried to settle with the family so the case wouldn’t go to court. The Grays said they weren’t about to accept the district’s final offer of $45,000 during mediation.
“But to this day, we do not know how either injury occurred, primarily because Stephanie is nonverbal,” the district said in the statement.
The district claims Stephanie’s osteoporosis caused the injuries, although the family said at the time she had not been diagnosed with the bone-thinning disease.
Superior Court Judge Sam Myers is expected to rule soon on what, if anything, the parents will have to pay the district.
Gilbert district officials said they could only answer limited questions about the case and would respond only to Brad Gray’s public comments made at a Dec. 8 school board meeting because the family did not sign a student information release form. Brad Gray said his family’s attorneys advised them not to sign the form.
The first fracture
In January 2006, Stephanie was 12 years old when her left femur was fractured.
Stephanie was born with Rett Syndrome, a neuro-developmental disorder caused by a damaged X chromosome. Boys born with the syndrome typically only live to be 4 or 5 years old, but girls can survive longer with Retts because they have two X chromosomes.
Stephanie can’t speak, walk or use her hands. She functions at around a 9-month-old level, requires daily assistance and is on medication to control seizures. Stephanie is also mentally retarded and has scoliosis, for which she had spinal fusion surgery in 2007.
As one of five students with severe physical handicaps, Stephanie was in a special class at Gilbert’s Patterson Elementary School.
Part of her Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, was to have her in standing therapy twice a day for 45 minutes at a time. The therapy helps with bone density and bone health.
Stephanie’s therapy involved lying on a flat table, strapped in to a Supine Stander. The table was then raised so Stephanie could stand unassisted.
According to Stephanie’s parents, they received a call from her teacher in January 2006 saying she had been taken to the nurse with a possible pulled hamstring. The teacher was calling because she needed permission to give Stephanie Tylenol.
The parents were told not to pick her up, that she was fine, and a couple of hours later Stephanie came home on the bus.
Brad Gray said immediately he could tell Stephanie was in pain. She was “moaning” and gave an anguished look of pain when she was moved. He took her to the emergency room, and an X-ray showed her left femur was fractured.
“I was mortified,” said Brad Gray, 49, a claims adjuster with a risk management company that handles cases for the Mesa and Tucson school districts. “It was highly traumatic for Stephanie.”
A cast was put on Stephanie’s leg for six weeks, and she began her long recovery journey.
A couple of days later, Patty Gray went to the school with the Grays’ older daughter, Allison, to figure out what happened. The teacher demonstrated how she strapped Stephanie into the stander.
After the demonstration, Patty Gray said she “ascertained” that’s how Stephanie’s leg was broken. She said she didn’t hear from the school until a week later, and the school never accepted any responsibility.
However, a district accident report filled out by the school nurse in January shows that Stephanie had a “possible muscle pull or fracture” and that it occurred “possibly during classroom activities.”
The parents figured it was just an accident and didn’t file any claims because they had never had any problems before.
However, the Grays said they instructed the school’s staff during the next IEP meeting to use a different standing therapy. The Grays said they thought everyone agreed for standing therapy that Stephanie would use a Flexi Stander, which is the device the parents started using at home for Stephanie’s therapy sessions.
The second break
A new school year started, and in August 2006, Stephanie was in the same school, with the same teacher. Brad Gray said he called to make sure staff would use the Flexi Stander with Stephanie.
A few weeks into the school year, Stephanie came home and Brad Gray said he could tell something was wrong. When he tried lifting her into bed after school, “she just started screaming and got big eyes.”
Her right thigh was hot, and he rushed her to the emergency room.
Doctors said Stephanie’s right femur had been fractured, an injury identical to the fracture that had happened in her other leg. Stephanie was again put into a cast.
Brad Gray said Stephanie’s teacher and an aide said nothing out of the ordinary happened that day, although Brad Gray said Stephanie was sent home with two pairs of clothes soaked in urine from the shoulder down, which was highly unusual.
“The teacher said she didn’t look right and she didn’t eat lunch,” Patty Gray said. “However, no one was called and she wasn’t taken to the nurse’s office.
“The femur is the strongest bone in the body,” she said. “It had to have been a miserable day for her.”
The Grays found out that the school had never received a Flexi Stander and that the teacher was still using the old Supine Stander that the parents said caused the original fracture.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if they had used the Flexi Stander, she wouldn’t have broken her leg,” Brad Gray said.
A new school
The parents moved Stephanie to Desert Ridge Junior High School after the second injury. Since then, they say they have had no problems.
Stephanie has spent more than a year in recovery and developed pressure sores on her heels.
The Grays filed a notice of claim in November 2006 and hired a Tucson attorney. The district didn’t respond after the required 60 days, and the family filed a lawsuit in January 2007 seeking $1.3 million. That money would compensate the family for medical expenses, and pay for a personal aide at school for her remaining years and rehabilitation therapy.
“Stephanie is an adorable child and will be well-liked by a jury,” the parent’s notice of claim said. “I am confident they will feel great sympathy for what she has had to endure due to the Patterson staff’s negligence.”
In January 2007, during a physical therapy session at home, Stephanie was taken to the emergency room again after she slipped during the session with a physical therapist. Her parents said because of the heel sores, she was not able to wear her regular shoes and ankle supports.
Doctors said she had a dislocated hip and a minor femur fracture that they weren’t concerned about, and it didn’t require a cast, Brad Gray said.
Because Stephanie hadn’t been doing her standing therapy regularly because of her injuries, she was now prone to “more breaking,” Brad Gray said.
The district maintains that because this injury occurred at home, the Grays “adopted a double standard, faulting the district for the injuries at school while claiming that the injury at home was simply an accident.”
Because of the injuries, Stephanie’s parents said she now can’t walk with assistance, roll over in bed or straighten her legs.
Stephanie had never broken any bones before the first fracture and has never fully recovered, her parents said.
“We’ve seen the best the Gilbert district has to offer, and the absolute worst,” said Brad Gray, referring to the care their older daughter received versus what Stephanie has experienced. “When you have a child who can’t talk, and a teacher who is responsible for her, and then she comes home with a broken leg, twice, you have to wonder what’s happening in that classroom.”
It’s unclear if any changes were made in the Patterson special-needs class after Stephanie’s injuries. District officials said in a statement they could not comment without the signed release form from the parents.
The statement also said that no employees were disciplined because of this case.
“Nothing in the facts warranted the disciplining of staff,” according to the statement. “It is an uncontested fact that the means of injury was accidental.”