A Kern County jury awarded $3.8 million in damages Wednesday to Bowe Cleveland, a former Taft Union High School student who was severely injured during a 2013 school shooting, for his past and future suffering.
The jury found Taft Union High School District 54 percent liable in a civil lawsuit, meaning the school district only has to pay 54 percent of the $3.8 million award. This comes out to $2.052 million.
Within one year of the shooting, Cleveland underwent 31 surgeries and had to take about 33 different medications to save his life and manage the immense pain he suffered, his attorney, Daniel Rodriguez, said.
For that, Rodriguez on Tuesday asked a Kern County jury during his closing arguments to award $44.85 million to Cleveland for the pain and suffering he has already endured and could continue to endure.
Rodriguez said he is proud of the jury for holding the school district accountable for ignoring warning signs.
"We hope that this verdict, the first in the country, serves as a wake-up call to school districts everywhere," Rodriguez said. "They have to do more than pay lip service to school safety — they have to make it a priority."
Taft Union High School District Superintendent Blanca G. Cavazos released the following statement: "Our entire community has felt the pain of Bryan Oliver’s actions since he made the decision to shoot Bowe Cleveland in Jan. of 2013. There are simply no winners in this case. Today’s verdict allows us to continue our healing as a community, and we, likewise, hope it will allow Mr. Cleveland and his family to do the same.
"While we continue healing as a community, over the past few years, we’ve also learned and grown in our approach to ensure the safest learning environment for our students, staff and faculty. We remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting everyone in our community."
Rodriguez went through each of six issues Cleveland has dealt with as a result of the shooting — physical pain, physical disfigurement, fear, psychological impairment, depression and mental illness. For his past damages, Rodriguez recommended the jury award $28.5 million, and for future damages, he recommended $15.35 million.
"It's a lot of money, but it's a lot of harm," Rodriguez said.
Attorney Leonard Herr, who represents the school district, told jurors he thought Cleveland should be compensated, but differed from Rodriguez on the amount — he recommended the jury award Cleveland a total of $1.13 million for any damages from the day of the shooting to present.
"No amount of money will change what Bowe went through," Herr said, adding that this is a difficult case for everyone, and hopefully the verdict will bring some sort of resolution to those involved.
On Jan. 10, 2013, Cleveland, 16 at the time of the shooting, was sitting in his science class when Bryan Oliver walked into the classroom with a shotgun and opened fire, striking Cleveland in the chest. Lead pellets remain in Cleveland's body and continue to cause problems for him 6½ years later.
The civil lawsuit brought by Cleveland's family against the school district in April 2013 alleged that administrators, particularly Rona Angelo, former assistant principal at Taft High, were fully aware of the dangers the gunman presented to students and staff and did nothing about it. Rodriguez said the gunman "leaked his intentions" about the shooting and his violent tendencies.
A Kern County jury found the Taft Union High School District negligent July 10, arguing that the district ignored warning signs that the gunman was dangerous.
"(Cleveland) absolutely suffered tremendous pain," Herr said. "He should be fully compensated for his pain and suffering."
Rodriguez discussed in great detail the injuries Cleveland suffered, both physically and mentally. He suffered a softball-sized wound in his chest from the gunshot, massive blood loss, shattered ribs, multiple puncture wounds to his lungs and a "chest riddled with shotgun pellets," Rodriguez said. He was placed into an induced coma for the first few weeks after the shooting. Cleveland also suffers from mental health issues as a result, Rodriguez said.
"I'm proud of Bowe, because he was able to battle back from devastating injuries, and he continues to work at being a survivor, and not a victim," Rodriguez said.
In 2013, prosecutors charged Oliver with two counts of attempted murder and argued at trial he intended to kill Cleveland and another student, Jacob Nichols, as retaliation for perceived bullying against him. Oliver shot at Nichols but missed.
He faced a life term if convicted.
Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman said incessant bullying at the school caused the gunman to "snap" and enter a blackout state the morning of the shooting.
Among the humiliations the gunman suffered, Cadman said, was a fight his freshman year that ended in him being sexually assaulted.
A mistrial was declared Dec. 17, 2014, after jurors were unable to reach a verdict.
About a month later, Oliver pleaded no contest to two counts of unpremeditated attempted murder and was sentenced to 27 years and four months in prison. He'll be eligible for parole in less than 10 years.