It didn’t take long for the other teachers to realize that Maria Caya, one of the chaperons on a school field trip to a bowling alley, was seriously drunk.
As elementary-school students bowled in June 2013 in Janesville, Wis., Caya tried to order more drinks from the bar, city officials said.
At one point, Caya disappeared, worrying school officials. They found her in the bathroom, passed out.
Alarmed, a staff member drove Caya to the hospital, where doctors said her blood alcohol level was 0.27 — more than three times the legal limit to drive in Wisconsin.
She later told doctors she had been drinking since early that morning.
Predictably, Caya was not a schoolteacher for much longer: She resigned a month later, according to ABC-affiliate WKOW.
But in what some are calling a maddening twist, Janesville City Council has now voted to pay Caya $75,000.
Her blood alcohol level is at the heart of her case. Caya argued in a lawsuit that her BAC was private medical information that the police department never should have released. The number was mentioned in a police report, then written about by a local newspaper.
Officers routinely record BACs in criminal cases, such as DUI traffic stops. But Caya was never charged or convicted. Investigators were only able to get her BAC from the hospital.
The settlement, approved Monday, ends three years of legal wrangling following Caya’s resignation.
But it has drawn the ire of critics who say the city of almost 64,000 about 45 miles southwest of Madison is choosing legal expedience over taking on even a small amount of risk.
Jens Jorgensen, the only council member who voted against the settlement, said the city should have gone to trial.
“I have 100 percent confidence a jury would make the right decision,” Jorgensen told The Washington Post, adding that he’d spent a week talking to constituents about whether the city should fight in court. “Not bringing it to court is just giving her an easy $75,000.”
Caya couldn’t be reached for comment. Her attorney, Christopher Stawski, could not be reached; a woman who answered the phone at Stawski’s law firm said he was out of the office and had no comment.
Caya, who had taught at Washington Elementary School in the Janesville school district, filed the lawsuit in Rock County Circuit Court in August 2014, more than a year after she resigned.
The suit makes no mention of her being drunk on the day of the trip to the bowling alley.
It says she “became ill” during the field trip and was taken to the emergency room.
The doctors and nurses who treated Caya “conducted various diagnostic tests and provided counseling,” according to the suit.
They also called police “to report suspected child neglect.”
Doctors and nurses spoke with a police officer, who filed the report that included her BAC.
A local newspaper reporter found the report and wrote an article, according to the suit, and the story of a drunk teacher supervising students spread quickly.
“After the Janesville Gazette published the initial article on June 8, 2013, its story regarding Caya became national and international news,” the suit says. The report of child neglect was “reported throughout the United States in virtually every form of media including newspaper, internet, television, social media and talk radio.”
But Caya’s lawsuit said the hospital acted “without legal authority and without any factual basis to suspect that any child participating in the field trip was neglected or harmed in any way.”
In a statement, the school district told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “student health or safety was not compromised, due to eight other district employees present on the field trip.”
Caya was never charged with a crime.
Her lawsuit a year after the incident sought $5.5 million in damages — a figure that worried city officials and their insurance company, Jorgensen said.
“If the City does not approve this proposed settlement that is recommended by our insurance carriers, then the City would be liable for all damages that the Court or jury could eventually award to the Plaintiff,” the city staff’s recommendation to the council said.
But Jorgensen worried that Janesville’s conservative choice in Caya’s case could make people more likely to sue the city in the future, knowing it will be an easy payday.
Potential litigants believe “if you do this, there’s a chance that you would continue to do this in the future,” he said. “Someone else can file a lawsuit whenever they slip on the sidewalk.”