In a “surprise” ruling, a Newport News Circuit Court judge found that the injured teacher’s complaint likely falls outside the exclusive jurisdiction of workers’ compensation claims.
A Virginia teacher who was shot and seriously injured by a 6-year-old student may continue her $40 million lawsuit against Newport News Public Schools.
According to The Associated Press, the “surprise” decision by Newport News Circuit Court Judge Matthew Hoffman means that plaintiff Abigail Zwerner could receive more than just workers compensation for her injuries.
Attorneys for the district had earlier argued that Zwerner’s claim should be dismissed, since—apparently—being shot by a student is a risk of employment in public schools.
“The actual risk of employment in this scenario is that of a teacher being injured at the hands of a student which, unfortunately, is a fairly common occurrence and one that is only increasing in frequency this day and age,” school board attorney Anne Lehran said in an earlier statement.
If Zwerner were unable to litigate, she would only be able to receive workers compensation, payable for a maximum of 10 years.
The Associated Press notes that some legal experts had expected the court to side with the school board, since Virginia has unusually strict workers’ compensation laws that encompass both workplace assaults and general allegations of negligence against employers. Lawsuits that are permitted in other states are, more often than not, dismissed in Virginia.
Hoffman, though, disagreed with the district’s contention, finding that Zwerner’s injuries “did not arise out of her employment” and, therefore, did not “fall within the exclusive provisions of workers’ compensation coverage.”
“The danger of being shot by a student is not one that is peculiar or unique to the job of a first-grade teacher,” Hoffman wrote in his decision.
Zwerner, adds The Associated Press, was hospitalized for nearly two weeks; she underwent multiple surgeries before eventually stabilizing.
In her complaint, Zwerner asserts that Newport News Public Schools administrators ignored warnings that the student had a firearm in his backpack. She also claims that the same student had been disciplined for numerous acts of violence and aggression, yet had been allowed to return to class after a lengthy suspension.
Speaking to the press, three of Zwerner’s lawyers—Diane Toscano, Jeffrey Breit, and Kevin Biniazan—said that the ruling represents a significant victory for their client.
“This victory is an important stepping stone on our path towards justice for Abby,” they said. “We are eager to continue our pursuit of accountability and a just, fair recovery.”
“No teacher expects to stare down the barrel of a gun held by a six-year-old student,” they added.