The Toppenish School District has agreed to pay nearly $7 million to the family whose infant fell through the bleachers at a soccer game in 2007 and suffered debilitating, lifelong injuries as a result, the lawyer for the family said Friday.
Terry Abeyta, who represented the family of Sophia Sanchez, said the $6.9 million settlement was reached after a 10-hour mediation session in October. It was approved in January in Yakima County Superior Court, and Abeyta believes it is the largest personal injury settlement in county history.
Despite the settlement, school officials say the district was not at fault, a position Abeyta does not accept.
“It was an entirely preventable fall,” Abeyta said in a telephone interview.
In September 2007, Sophia Sanchez fell through a 7.5-inch gap in the bleachers at Toppenish Middle School’s A.C. Meagher Field and landed on her head almost 13 feet below on the cement floor. Abeyta said the infant girl’s baby sitter was preparing to buckle her into a car seat toward the end of a soccer game when the seat fell off the bleachers and Sanchez tumbled out.
The baby was hospitalized for almost a month and underwent several surgeries. Medical bills totaled $566,000.
As a result of the fall, Sanchez — now 6 years old — suffers from several permanent disabilities, said Abeyta.
“This beautiful little girl should be counting to 100, know her ABC’s and be able to run and play at recess,” he said. “Instead, she has no functional use of her left arm and leg, has no control over her bowel and bladder, and can’t walk.”
Confined to a wheelchair, she will never be able to work and will require 24-hour care for the rest of her life, Abeyta said.
David Andrews, the Toppenish district’s business manager, called the incident an “extremely unfortunate accident” and “our hearts go out to the little girl.” But he maintains the district was not at fault.
Since the 1960s, Andrews said, when the Meagher bleachers were first installed, they were in compliance with building codes.
But “every once in a while, there is a code change that is so important it is retroactive,” Abeyta said.
That was the case under new international standards established in 2003. The standards required narrower gaps between bleachers — a safety change the school district did not adopt. But Andrews said the new standards were part of an “obscure international law” that Abeyta exploited in the lawsuit.
Abeyta said the international provisions entered state building codes in 2004, three years before Sanchez’s accident. Under these provisions, gaps between bleachers cannot exceed more than 4 inches.
Abeyta said the city of Toppenish adopted the provisions that year, but the school district did nothing.
Abeyta said the district should have been aware of the upgraded standard.
A recent Superior Court ruling in the case favored the plaintiff, by deciding that the school’s violation of the standard could be used as evidence against the district, Abeyta said.
Another deciding factor that worked against Toppenish, district officials said, was the use of joint and several liability in the case, which means that a plaintiff may recover all damages from a defendant regardless of the extent of the defendant’s liability.
Andrews said it was “a little scary” to think a public entity could be blamed completely for an accident it may not have had direct control over.
The Meagher bleachers are currently being replaced and the bleachers at the high school are up to international code, he said.
The Toppenish School District’s insurer will pay the settlement, except for a $10,000 insurance deductible. Officials anticipate their insurance rates will go up, potentially costing taxpayers more in the future.
The multimillion-dollar award will go into a trust fund for managing the girl’s health needs.