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School District Not Liable in Student's ATV Death

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit over the death of a Texas high school student in an all-terrain vehicle accident while the student was assigned by his school to work at the farm of the agriculture teacher.

The parents of De'Jon Pierce sued the Hearne Independent School District and two school officials over the 2012 death of their 17-year-old son, alleging that the school principal allowed the agriculture teacher to bring students to work on his farm without parental permission.

Court papers say Pierce, a junior at the high school, was cleaning pigs at the farm when Carl Trojacek, the agriculture teacher, asked him and another student to ride the ATV to deliver a tool to another farm. On the return trip, Pierce lost control of the ATV and crashed into a tree. He died of blunt force trauma, while the other student survived.

Pierce's parents filed a federal lawsuit that included state-law tort claims and a federal claim that the school district, principal Anthony McGill, and Trojacek violated the student's 14th Amendment right to substantive due process of law. A federal district judge dismissed the main claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over certain other state claims.

In its Jan. 7 decision in Pierce v. Hearne Independent School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously affirmed the dismissal.

The court called Pierce's death "tragic" but held that the school district and the school officials could not be held liable.

The court said a state law gives Texas school districts immunity from liability in tort lawsuits unless the claim relates to property damage, personal injury, or death arising from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle. Under Texas case law, the motor-vehicle exception applies only when a government employee is driving the vehicle involved in an accident, the appeals court said. 

The court also ruled that the parents could not win their federal civil rights claim because neither the agriculture teacher, the principal, nor the school district showed deliberate indifference to the danger faced by Pierce.

With regard to the teacher, the court recounted the parents' disturbing allegations, but said they did not amount to a federal case.

"The Pierces allege that Trojacek removed De'Jon from school without their permission, instructed him to ride double on an ATV despite the fact that he did not have a driver's license, did not properly instruct him on how to operate the ATV, and did not provide him with any safety gear," the appeals court said. "These allegations do not suffice to show deliberate indifference. Trojacek may have been negligent by removing De'Jon from school and instructing him to drive his ATV, but his actions do not reveal a complete disregard for human life and an indifference to a significant risk of death."

The court reached similar conclusions with respect to the principal and the school district.

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