The Kern High School District agreed Wednesday to pay $10.5 million to a former student injured in a violent dog pile that broke out during a 2010 Bakersfield High School pep rally, cutting short an ongoing civil trial that threatened to cost the district’s insurance company even more money.
The student, Mitch Carter, will use that money for healthcare-related costs, his trial attorney Nicholas Rowley said during a press conference outside Kern County Superior Court.
A jury had already found the district liable for Carter’s injuries, which his lawyers said included brain damage. It was in the process of determining monetary damages and was expected to award more than $45 million, Rowley said based on interviews his side conducted with jurors in court Wednesday.
“They would have given him more, but the school district would have appealed,” Rowley said, adding the appeals process could have lasted years. Carter needs that money now, he said.
The district’s insurance company, New Jersey-based Everest National Insurance Company, will pay the lion’s share of that $10.5 million settlement, Rowley said.
“No matter what, I'd trade everything just to have a full functioning brain,” Carter said outside court Wednesday. “But I think that this is a good step in the right direction.”
INEXCUSABLE BUT A SURPRISE
Carter was mobbed by a group of students in 2010 when he put on a chicken costume meant to mock an opposing team’s mascot during a pep rally the day of a championship football game. Members of the football team pounced on him, punching, kicking and leaping onto a dog pile that Carter has said left him with a traumatic brain injury.
Jurors found the district negligent.
Defense attorney Michael Kellar on Wednesday described what happened to Carter in 2010 as “embarrassing and inexcusable,” and that it never should have occurred, “but came as a total surprise and sudden surprise to school staff.”
He said KHSD’s insurance company made the decision to settle, wanting to reduce the risk of an even higher jury award than the $10.5 million.
In an emailed statement, KHSD officials said they will reevaluate their safety policies in light of the incident and accept responsibility.
“We understand the reasons why Self-Insured Schools of California and the excess insurance carrier chose to settle this case,” the statement reads. “The District is going to take this opportunity to evaluate its standards, policies and practices to ensure that every student is educated in a safe and secure environment — because every parent and student should expect nothing less.
“We sincerely wish Mr. Carter and his family all the best as they move forward.”
The settlement ended a seven-day civil trial that shed light on shoddy safety practices at Kern High School District, revealed questionable policies and disorganization between the KHSD Police Department and school administrators, was fraught with accusations of conspiracy and cover-up and concluded with a lawyer donning a chicken suit in court.
At one point, when Kellar made an objection asking what the “chicken dance” was early in the trial, Rowley came close to demonstrating it in court.
“Do we need to go over what the chicken dance is?” Rowley asked.
A CHANGE IN POLICY
When Carter stepped into his chicken suit Dec 10, 2010, his attorneys said he became part of a tradition at Bakersfield High School. That tradition is one where students or teachers are asked to dress up in a costume of the opposing team's mascot and take a beating before a big game.
It happened to teacher Bob Stone in 2005, they said, something defense attorneys attempted to have excluded as evidence.
Rowley said he's confident the jury's verdict and the settlement will force KHSD to change policy and never allow this to happen again or else “we'll be at that next school board meeting.
“When a jury speaks, people listen,” he said.
Carter's lead attorney, Ralph Wegis, had in the past turned down settlement offers of $50,000 and $1 million before the trial began June 16.
KHSD IS ‘DESPICABLE’
Rowley, who questioned the majority of witnesses, said he bears “no bad blood” with Bakersfield High School. But Wegis, who has called the district's actions “despicable,” won't be satisfied until administration reorganizes, he said.
“It's going to continue to be despicable until I hear from the school district that we have fired somebody and we have fired them because that's not who we want to be in the future,” Wegis said.
He'd start by eliminating top administrators, he said, and terminating anyone who lied during the trial. That includes Bakersfield High School Head Football Coach Paul Golla, whom Wegis says he was able to impeach as a witness.
Golla testified Thursday that he wasn’t in the gym when the dog pile took place. But a scout from USC testified Monday that he watched the dog pile form and was sitting next to Golla at the time.
“I would go down with every single person that had their fingerprints on this, so everybody who doesn't have their fingerprints on it says you could lose your job if safety isn't No. 1,” Wegis said. “If you lie in court you could lose your job. That’s not the example we're setting for our children.”
Rowley told reporters Wednesday that there “was some confusion” when Golla said he was not in the gym. Kellar remains steadfast in his Golla’s testimony.
“He said he wasn't there. So I'm taking him at his word, and you know, there may be some misunderstanding from the other coach as to when they did leave or if Golla left before him or if Coach Golla's attention was distracted somewhere else,” Kellar said.
That testimony, however, didn’t play a significant role in determining the district’s liability, Kellar said.
“I think it's incorrect to assign any claim that these employees lied or intentionally misled. Because I think that’s just the opposite and they had nothing to gain by it,” Kellar said.
CONSPIRACY THEORY ‘RIDICULOUS’
Meanwhile, during his closing statements, Rowley accused the district of carrying on a “conspiracy” and “cover-up.”
Neither Golla nor BHS Activities Director Anna Lovan saw the dog pile form, they both testified. The lone KHSD police officer investigating the matter hadn’t seen the witness reports taken by school administrators until he was presented with them during the trial.
BHS Principal David Reese testified that he had no advance knowledge that a chicken suit would be used in a pep rally skit, but Lovan testified later that he approved it.
This was all orchestrated, Rowley asserted during trial.
Kellar called that assertion “ridiculous” Wednesday.
“There was no conspiracy,” Kellar said. “There may have been some lack of appreciation for what went down in the gym because the principal wasn't there, there was no video available immediately and Miss Lovan's view was obstructed in the initial moments of the dog pile.”
Rowley painted a picture during the trial of a school obsessed with football, creating a culture where star players are looked on as gods and protected by administrators. Students testified to that.
When Carter turned in a starting player who he said was stealing from backpacks, and later stole Carter’s wallet while he was in the shower, Golla shined him off, he testified. Golla offered Carter $20 from his wallet as consolation and didn’t discipline the player, Carter said.
“He's not 'Mitch the snitch' anymore, or the kid in the chicken suit,” Rowley said Wednesday. “He's somebody who stood up for himself in our justice system and made the world a safer place.”
Carter said he hopes to someday attend law school so he can stand up for those who need their voices heard.
“I had a great man stand up for me when no one else would,” Carter said. “I’d love to do that and stand up for the kid who needs to be stood up for.”