Understanding Teacher Liability Protection Legislation

By Jordan Riak

The year is 1950. The place is Goodland, a democratically governed island nation that has been in existance for nearly two centuries. Our attention is drawn to a particular feature of Goodland: everywhere the water supply is delivered in pipes made of lead. That has been standard practice since public utility companies laid water mains to replace family wells. As a consequence, the health of virtually every citizen of Goodland has been effected to some degree. Because the effects are ubiquitous, they pass largely unnoticed. Regarding the acute cases, no one suspects that the public water supply is the culprit. After all, Goodlanders reason, generation after generation has been drinking the same water from the same sources, and life goes on. In fact the great majority of Goodlanders do quite well.

The year is 1975. A few experts in the field of toxicology float the theory that lead plumbing is dangerous to public health. Their research shows consistantly high correlations between the consumption of water rich in dissolved lead compounds and certain illnesses. But the government of Goodland ignors the experts and their findings.The media sneers and only on rare occasions exploits the "poison water theory" as comic relief to fill gaps between the truly serious issues of the day. Nevertheless, the experts attract a small band of cognocenti who read their books, refuse to drink lead-tainted water and do what they can to persuade others to avoid drinking it too.

The year is 2000. By now, all European nations have heeded the experts' warnings and have replaced all lead water mains. By means of public education campaigns targeting all age groups, they have informed their citizens that exposure to lead and its compounds is dangerous, especially to children. Nowhere in Europe is there any controversy about the matter. And some developing nations have begun following Europe's example.

In Goodland, however, progress is much slower. Although expert opinion is now unanimous about the dangers of lead in the drinking water, and the lead-free people have grown in numbers and strength, the pro-lead position remains dominant. Most Goodlanders blithly continue to consume water that has passed through the old pipes. Either they aren't aware of the risks or don't want to be bothered. Some strongly resent being told that what they and their predecessors have been doing is dangerous and unnecessary. Some Goodlanders are so resentful that they make it a point of forcing their children to drink water enriched with lead, "for their own good," they say, and vow that they will never submit to a ban on the practice. Some cite obscure passages from the Scriptures to support their pro-lead position. They form clubs and correspond with each other over the Internet where they extole the health benefits of lead.

The year is 2001. A new, conservative government has just been voted into office. It is aware of the mounting controversy stirred up by the no-lead people. It is apprehensive as more and more citizens are demanding that their water supplies be made safe, and some irate citizens, whose children have begun to show obvious symptoms of acute lead poisoning, are taking their water suppliers to court and winning. Meanwhile, the pro-lead people are getting angrier by the minute. They are organizing and fiercely lobbying their elected representatives to restore Gooldand to the idyllic 1950s before all this nonesense emerged, to the days when water was water, and it was nobody's damn business what families drank or gave their children to drink.

The government has now seized a golden opportunity to score two easy victories in a single stroke. It has introduced the The Public Water Suppliers Liability Protection Act which, if it passes, will shield the large drinking water-related industries from product liability litigation. This will spare them the staggering combined costs of legal settlements, and upgrades to their systems which their insurers would certainly demand. By giving them this protection, the government cements their allegiance. As for pro-lead traditionalists who constitute the bulk of this government's constituency, it soothes and comforts them with promises to restore Goodland to the Golden Age when all decent upstanding people believed that reasonable and moderate levels of lead in the drinking water never did anyone any harm.

Riak's letter of March 7, 2001 to the Editor of the New Hampshire Sentinel
Dear Editor,

One curious aspect of the Teacher Liability Protection Act is that none of the bill's authors has been willing or able to supply examples of "frivolous lawsuits" by parents against teachers. The educational establishment is in fact legally among the best protected and least likely target for someone looking for an easy mark.

This proposed legislation has an entirely different purpose. It is a self-serving invention--a cynical ploy to calm public apprehensions about real, complex problems in education by supplying a make-believe villain, and then promising to smash it with a make-believe remedy. Let's see some examples of "frivolous lawsuits" against teachers, and then we can decide if they are indeed frivolous and, if so, how to deal with them.
Jordan Riak, Exec. Dir.
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE)

Nadine Block's letter of March 7, 2001 to Fathman and Riak
The NEA lobbyist claims they have no records of frivolous suits although I would guess they could dredge up some trumped up lawsuits which their liability carrier has defended. The American Tort Reform Association did a survey of principals which has led to news reports that 57% of principals said lawsuits or court settlements have affected school programs. The truth is that only 57 principals out of 5,000 surveyed said that and there were only 523 responses (Center for Justice and Democracy Mythbuster report).
Tom Johnson's query to Riak of March 2, 2000
I'd also like to know, has any sponsor given an example of the frivolous lawsuits which supposedly inspired this bill?

Furthermore, it's awfully vexing that even now with this bill being introduced--no longer just an idea floated about--I STILL can't find the slightest news coverage about it. Not even the Washington Post, apparently.

Frivolous or not frivolous? You decide.
Two undated clippings forwarded by a friend, March 7, 2001
PUYALLUP--The Puyallup School District has settled a lawsuit that accused a teacher of dumping a 14-year-old student head-first into a trash can. The case had been scheduled to go to trial yesterday.

The amount of the settlement was not disclosed, but the parents of Thomas Ricks had filed suit against the school for $100,000 to cover future medical costs, physical pain and emotional strain. They did not seek criminal charges against the teacher, Jerry Lelli, who continues to teach at Ferrucci Junior High.

Defendants in the suit included the district and Puyallup Mayor Don Malloy, then-principal at Ferrucci.

The suit claims that Lelli, a teacher and wrestling coach, came into a classroom Jan. 14, 1999, looking for a wrestler who was late for practice. Lelli told the student to stay focused so he could get his work done and get to practice.

Thomas Ricks, who was in the classroom, commented, "Mr. Lelli, how can he stay focused when you're talking to him?"

The suit claimed Lelli then grabbed Ricks by the hair, slammed his head into the man's knee and carried him over to a trash can. Ricks knocked over the can, but Lelli asked another student to put it back up. Lelli than put him into the trash can and dropped him, the suit said.

Information is from Seattle Times staff and news services.

Credit: Seattle Times staff and news services

PUYALLUP--A civil lawsuit against the Puyallup School District that accused a teacher of dumping a 14-year-old boy in a trash can was settled for about $35,000.

The boy's parents, Joel and Karyl Ricks, initially sought about $100,000 to pay for past and future medical costs, physical pain, diminished performance at school and emotional strain.

The Rickses' attorney, Pilar Murray, said her clients agreed Monday night to settle for less, the day before the suit was scheduled to be tried before a six-person jury. The school district's insurance pool paid the settlement.

The Puyallup School District gave teacher Jerry Lelli a letter of reprimand, which amounts to a stern warning, following the Jan. 14, 1999, incident.

Lelli continues to teach at Ferrucci Junior High School, where he was hired in August 1985.

Mary Butler, The News Tribune
Credit: The News Tribune

Staff writer Mary Butler covers Puyallup schools. Reach her at 253-274-7338 or mary.butler@mail.tribnet.com.

For S 316 Teacher Liability Protection (the Washingon version) go to www.nospank.net/s316.htm

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See "The Teacher Liability Protection Act: An Unwise and Unnecessary Federal Intrusion" at www.nospank.net/tlpa.htm

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