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Teacher Immune in Student's Swimming-Related Death, Appeals Court Rules

A Pennsylvania physical education teacher who required a student non-swimmer to spend most of a class period in a school pool was immune from liability after the student ingested water into his lungs and died, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The student, Juanya Spady, was a 15-year-old sophomore at Liberty High School in the Bethlehem Area School District in 2010, court papers say. He was in the swimming portion of a P.E. class taught by teacher Carlton Rodgers, who required experienced swimmers as well as those who did not know how to swim to spend the entire class period in the school pool, the papers say. Non-swimmers could remain in the shallow end or work their way around the edge of the whole pool.

The lawsuit said Spady spent some time in the shallow end before doing a "gutter grab" to reach the deep end, where he ran into some other students and briefly submerged, possibly inhaling water as he resurfaced.

Spady left the pool and told Rodgers his chest hurt and asked whether he could stay out of the pool. Rodgers ordered him back in the pool, court papers say.

While Spady was in his English class, about 90 minutes after he had been in the water, he had a seizure, with a pink, frothy fluid emerging from his mouth and nose. He was transported to a hospital but died later that day.

An expert medical report filed as part of the suit concluded that Spady had died of a phenomenon known as "delayed drowning," when water is inhaled into the lungs and eventually causes a spasm and asphyxiation. The rare condition can occur as long as a day after the person inhales water, the expert's report said.

The boy's mother, Mica Spady, sued Rodgers and the Bethlehem Area School District, claiming that they deprived her son of his civil rights. The suit alleges a 14th Amendment due process of law claim against Rodgers based on the "state-created danger" theory of liability. The claim against the school district alleges liability based on deliberate indifference, arguing that the district failed to train its P.E. teachers in how to properly teach and supervise swimming lessons.

A federal district judge denied summary judgment to Rodgers based on his claim of qualified immunity. And the judge denied the school district's summary judgment motion, ruling that there were genuine factual disputes among the parties over the cause of Spady's death, the validity of competing experts, and other matters, as to require a trial.

In its Sept. 1 decision in Spady v. Bethlehem Area School District, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled unanimously that Rodgers was entitled to qualified immunity. 

(The appeal involved only the potential liability of the P.E. teacher, not that of the school district. The claim against the district remains alive in the district court.)

The appeals court agreed that the case was "undeniably tragic," but as for Rodgers's immunity, "the question is whether the law in this context was so well-established that it would have been apparent to a reasonable gym teacher that failure to take action to assess a non-apparent condition that placed the student in mortal danger violated that student's constitutional right under the state-created-danger theory of liability."

The court answers that in the negative.

"No [U.S.] Supreme Court case has established a right to adequate safety protocols during public-school swimming class," the appeals court said. "Indeed, no decision of the Supreme Court even discusses the right of students to have adequate safety protocols in these settings or in any analogous setting."

While some gym teachers and coaches have faced liability for putting students in dangerous situations, those situations involved "patently egregious and intentional misconduct, which is notably absent from this case," the court said.

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