Prince William County Schools settled a lawsuit Monday, awarding $25,000 to a family of a child who was injured when she slipped through a 15 1/2-inch gap in the bleachers at Gar-Field Senior High School.
The suit was being tried in Prince William County Circuit Court on Monday, when a juror became ill during opening arguments. The two sides were then able to reach a settlement on the suit, which originally asked for $1 million in damages.
"This was the first time serious settlement negotiations took place," said John Johnston, attorney for 9-year-old Brittany Bosak, of Woodbridge, and her family. Brittany broke her rib and arm when she fell through the bleachers in 1996.
Her father, Edward Bosak, has appeared several times at School Board meetings to complain about bleachers he says remain unsafe. The settlement did not involve any admission of negligence on the part of the school system.
Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said the decision to settle the case was made by the school system's insurance company. He said he thinks the school system would have won at trial.
"We would have been able to answer very forcefully some of the loose allegations that have been made," Kelly said. "We've always been in compliance."
Bosak said that he was disappointed the case was dismissed and that he plans to continue lobbying the School Board to make changes.
"The whole story wasn't told," Bosak said, adding that he chose to settle because of the stress on his wife and daughter.
Bosak said he plans to continue appearing before the board. "I am not going away, not by a long shot," Bosak said. "I`m not going away until this is eradicated throughout the county."
Kelly said Prince William County has safer bleachers than surrounding districts because of an ongoing retrofitting program to eliminate large gaps between tiers. Closing the gaps costs about $300,000 to $400,000 for each school, though not every school needs the work. Newer schools, such as Hylton High School and Forest Park High School, opening next fall, have bleachers built to different standards, Kelly said.
Bleachers still to be retrofitted include those at Brentsville District Middle/High School and the visitor's side bleachers at Gar-Field.
The move to close gaps in the bleachers was not made in response to the lawsuit, Kelly said. "We just found that here's a way to make them a little bit more childproof," he said.
"It's putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," Bosak said.
Johnston has represented another family whose 6-year-old fell from the bleachers at Stonewall Jackson Senior High School in 1994. The case was dismissed after depositions began.
Kelly said that child fell off the bleachers, not through them.
The issue of bleacher safety has received attention from outside the county.
Rep. Bill Luther (D-Minn.) introduced a congressional bill in February directing the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue national standards for child-safe bleachers.
His home state already has ruled that gaps in bleachers and handrails can be no larger than 4 inches wide. The move came after 6-year-old Toby Lee was killed after slipping though a gap and hitting a concrete floor.