Join 3,424 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


May 29, 2002
11:53 AM   Subscribe

Paralyzed H.S. senior works for two years to achieve dream of walking across commencement stage to take her diploma. At the last minute, principal makes her use her wheelchair, citing liability concerns. Lawyers have us all running scared, so sad. (via Romensko)
posted by luser (48 comments total)

 
Wouldn't a release form have been easier/more appropriate?
posted by rushmc at 11:55 AM on May 29, 2002


I mean Romenesko. Also, the girl's personal site.
posted by luser at 11:55 AM on May 29, 2002


Rushmc: They tried that--the school refused.
posted by Nothing at 12:00 PM on May 29, 2002


They don't deserve but to suffer their insesibility. Hit them where it hurts, mofos.
posted by elpapacito at 12:10 PM on May 29, 2002


That's Jim Markham. Let him know what a complete and total bastard he is.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:22 PM on May 29, 2002


I thought they killed that guy at the end of Buffy season 3 after he turned into a big snake.
posted by squinky at 12:24 PM on May 29, 2002


Well, I hate to say it, but if the principal had allowed her to walk and she had fallen, there would have been a lawsuit and he would have been villified. Even fighting off an unsuccessful lawsuit would have been expensive for the school and bad publicity. I'm not saying the prinicpal did the right thing, he made a cold-blooded, uncompassionate, fiscally correct decision. He was damned either way, waiver or no.
posted by RylandDotNet at 12:31 PM on May 29, 2002


What is the reasoning that leads to the school's culpability here? There is no negligence, no spilled water, icy steps. If a person makes an informed, conscious decision to do something, why does our society now deem it not their responsibility but the responsibility of others?
posted by rushmc at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2002


To be fair, Rushmc, I don't think our society has deemed that. Or at least that isn't necessarily demonstrated by this. In all likelihood had she fallen, she would not have sued. And more than that, if she did sue, there's a good chance she wouldn't win.
posted by Doug at 1:04 PM on May 29, 2002


Ryland's right. The principal did what he had to do. Schools are not profit centers, with tons of extra cash lying around. And people who might otherwise seem like reasonable, non-litiginous normals can turn into irrational moneygrubbing responsibility-dodgers after something happens. This isn't the Lifetime Channel, after all - sad as it may be, that principal has the fiscal well-being of that school and its ability to provide educations to hundreds of students to think about, not the desires of one kid.
posted by UncleFes at 1:12 PM on May 29, 2002


If a person makes an informed, conscious decision to do something, why does our society now deem it not their responsibility but the responsibility of others?

Hello?!? Where have you been? This is the age of the lottery. People today have three simple dreams in their lives: win the lotto, win a lawsuit, or become a rap singer.

The government promotes the first dream. The lawyers promote the second. And our culture promotes the third.
posted by eas98 at 1:12 PM on May 29, 2002


But of course - they're suing the school anyway!

Malikina and her mom, Nina, said they plan to bring the issue before the school board and push forward with state and federal complaints.
posted by UncleFes at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2002


Sometimes being an ethical and kind human being is more important than doing your job - especially when the two may be seen by some as contradictory.
posted by luriete at 1:18 PM on May 29, 2002


Wouldn't a release form have been easier/more appropriate?

From the article...
Her mother even signed a form that would release the school from any liability.
posted by internal at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2002


IANAL, but some lawyers I do know once told me that there is no such thing as a binding liability waiver in cases like these. Even if someone signs their name in front a hundred witnesses saying "I absolve the owners of these premises of any liability whatsoever for any event that may occur", there are plenty of legal loopholes to get around that.

Not that that excuses the principal's actions in my eyes, but it may help understand where he's coming from.
posted by kokogiak at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2002


It's not about "the desires of one kid," UncleFes, it's about choosing to promote a society in which illogical and improper lawsuits are anticipated in every situation, resulting in irrational and provoking attempts to avoid hypothetical suits.

But of course - they're suing the school anyway!

And you've provided, yourself, the reason that such an approach won't work. Actions such as this principal's replace a potential invalid suit with a very real and appropriate one.
posted by rushmc at 1:27 PM on May 29, 2002


IANAL, but some lawyers I do know once told me that there is no such thing as a binding liability waiver in cases like these.

If that is the case, it should be addressed as a failure of the legal system, not "gotten around" but attempting to remove all risk from everyone's lives, which is a logical impossibility.
posted by rushmc at 1:29 PM on May 29, 2002


there would have been a lawsuit and he would have been villified

A lawsuit might still be possible even when there is a waiver, but the vilification of the principal seems very, very unlikely given the circumstances. If she had walked and fallen, I very much doubt we would have heard about it, even if there was a lawsuit. A lawsuit seems unlikely as well though, as many of those loopholes Kokogiak mentioned rely on the waiver being somewhat forced upon the person. The difference between a school saying "we don't want any responsibility for this so you have to sign a waiver" and a person saying "I will sign a waiver to absolve you of responsibility if you will let me do this" is important. The school did not suggest she walk in the first place, the school did not plan her walking, and the school did not provide the ceremony with intent to allow her to walk; those three things cover three of the loopholes right there.
posted by Nothing at 1:37 PM on May 29, 2002


That first sentence should be prefaced with: "Assuming the student was allowed to walk and fell,"
posted by Nothing at 1:42 PM on May 29, 2002


I wasn't aware that principals had the right to make such edicts. "you will use your wheelchair" - eh? If i were her, i would have just stood up out of the chair and walked anyway. What's he gonna do, tackle her?
posted by benh57 at 1:47 PM on May 29, 2002


resulting in irrational and provoking attempts to avoid hypothetical suits.

"Hypothetical" lawsuits that not only happen quite often but can permanently damage the ability of an entire district to provide educational services to, in some cases, thousands of kids. I'm sorry for that girl, but it sounds like she wasn't even close to being able to walk across that stage (the article implies that she was wobbling all over the place). This principal did the right thing. And while everyone's devotion to the girl's wishes is laudable, from the view of the potential loss to the district and, ultimately, the other kids, she was being very selfish. Still is. She is putting their educations at risk, by causing financial hardship for the district.
posted by UncleFes at 2:05 PM on May 29, 2002


benh, ditto
posted by sixtwenty3dc at 2:06 PM on May 29, 2002


People today have three simple dreams in their lives: win the lotto, win a lawsuit, or become a rap singer.

No. She just dreamed of walking on that stage

I wasn't aware that principals had the right to make such edicts. "you will use your wheelchair" -

A disabled person should have the right to try to overcome her physical problem, with hard work and therapy and courage.
FDR did just that, walking painfully with heavy metal braces in many public occasions even if he really needed a wheelchair. One should have the right to fight against one's illness
I understand that the principal was scared of lawsuits but Jesus, that was really heartless
posted by matteo at 2:08 PM on May 29, 2002


Would she sue the school if she fell?

Sounds about as likely as someone suing a fast food restaurant chain for coffee that is too hot.

RylandDotNet is correct in saying no matter what the principal is screwed no matter what decision he made.

Remove the chance of a million dollar lawsuit resulting in catastrophic financial problems for his school? or let a girl have her dream?

The lawsuit system in the US needs to change.
posted by Qambient at 2:14 PM on May 29, 2002


This principal did the right thing.

You continue to insist upon this, and yet rather than make everyone happy and risk incurring a lawsuit, he has made everyone unhappy and incurred a lawsuit.

How is that better?
posted by rushmc at 2:24 PM on May 29, 2002


You continue to insist upon this, and yet rather than make everyone happy and risk incurring a lawsuit, he has made everyone unhappy and incurred a lawsuit.
How is that better?


Game theory at its best.

The lawsuit system in the US needs to change

Yeah, there are scores of obscenely frivolous lawsuits out there. But tort reform unfortunately means less of those "I crashed my Porsche nobody told me it was a fast car you gotta give me 3 trillion dollars" lawsuits BUT also less of those "you sold me some defective, crappy dangerous stuff", "you fed me some posionous food/water and now I got cancer".

All those huge corporations paying shitloads of cash in PACs and so forth to promote "tort reform", are kinda scary

It's a bit like Miranda rights -- they protected a lot of bad guy's asses, but it's a right very very valuable for all the innocents also
posted by matteo at 2:32 PM on May 29, 2002


How is that better?

He upheld his responsibilities to the students of his district by not creating a risky physical situation for the girl or a risky financial situation for the district.

As opposed to creating a situation where the health of an already injured girl was put further in jeopardy while at the same time creating a huge potential financial liability.

School districts aren't about fulfilling wishes, they are about educating students.
posted by UncleFes at 2:34 PM on May 29, 2002


According to her quote, all they told her was that they were afraid she'd "take too long" to walk across the stage. How incredibly frustrating, especially for a young woman already facing inconceivable hardship.

She should have made a public stink, so that everyone knew about it... and then when her name was called, have helpers to assist her out of her chair and walk. At that point, during the proceedings, what was the principal gonna do -- in front of the entire audience? You can bet he'd have to cover his ears to drown out the applause.

(At least, that's how my movie-of-the-week version ends.)
posted by Fofer at 2:43 PM on May 29, 2002


She had leg spasms twice and nearly fell," he said. "Her walker was leaning from one side to the other."

Markham said he believed the portable stage set up for graduation would be unsafe for the walker, and he tried to convey that to the girl's mother prior to the ceremonies.

posted by aaronshaf at 3:00 PM on May 29, 2002


Sounds about as likely as someone suing a fast food restaurant chain for coffee that is too hot.

The difference being that the person with the coffee did not accept the coffee against the expressed wishes of McDonalds, having convinced them with a written waiver of liability. Had that been the case, the lawsuit would never have been won.

UncleFes: there is an additional responsibility at play here: the responsibility of our society to respond to the problems that lead to this kind of thing. What's better: The possibility of a few thousand kids with a slightly better education; or a definite stand against the kind of society that allows for there to be the question of outside financial responsibility in individual choice? It's not an easy question, and I don't think it's necessary to choose one or the other, but the principal in this case chose against both, putting the school at risk of lawsuit and contributing to the lawsuit fear culture.

Aaronshaf: I am sure the girl knew the risk of falling. She chose to walk anyway, and her doctors and parents thought that was okay.
posted by Nothing at 3:27 PM on May 29, 2002


there is an additional responsibility at play here: the responsibility of our society to respond to the problems that lead to this kind of thing.

I agree - but that is an awfully big chance for a high school principal to take. In fact, some might say that societal problems take a back seat to his more immediate responsibilities. And his stand for a more indvidually responsible society (a society in which a handicapped girl would be given leave to walk across a wobbling portable stage provided she and her parents explicitly stated that this was their wish despite the inherent danger and that they absolved the school - who's liability when students are on school grounds or participating in school functions is well known - of all responsibility) might very well be in direct opposition to his responsibility, barring the financial aspect altogether, to that individual girl to protect her from harm (in this case, further harm) when she is in his care.

Maybe that's the overriding concern - that the girl would be in the care of the school during the ceremony, she hadn't demonstrated competence to walk across the stage prior to the event, and the principal was exercising his responsibility to protect the girl from physical harm as best he could, regardless of the wishes of the girl.

But in the end, it's society's job to solve societal problems - not some poor principal's, who got caught in a crack and opted for the cold equation rather than the chance of spectacular failure.
posted by UncleFes at 3:39 PM on May 29, 2002


Erm. In other, less advanced societies, such as mine, we have reformed our tort system by doing away with this troublesome part of it.

(vastly simplified explanation)

In New Zealand, a employer-funded agency (essentially a compulsory insurance scheme) compensates victims for personal injury by accident or medical misadventure. In exchange, you can no longer sue for personal injury, except in the rare case of exemplary damages. (Exemplary damages are awarded in particularly heinous cases to serve as a warning to others, rather than to compensate the victims. NZ courts have been very reluctant to award them).

The upshot? We don't have stupid-arse situations like this. Of course, nobody - lawyers or victims - gets rich out it either.

(Of course, I wish our laws on defamation and libel were more American style, but that can wait until another post).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:40 PM on May 29, 2002


I realize it's a big deal for her, but this is her high school graduation; all she's entitled to is a diploma, not a dramatic "defining moment".

I'm sure the principal saw her struggling across the stage and decided that, all things considered, it was probably going to be something of a pain in the ass and a disruption, and therefore not worth the risk. As the principal he gets to make that decision.

Sure, it's irritating and kind of sad, but not getting to do things your way in high school isn't really anything new.
posted by stefanie at 3:51 PM on May 29, 2002


We're jumping to conclusions here. The complaints that are being pursued do not necessarily have to be lawsuits. These could be complaints to state and federal departments of education regarding civil rights violations.

Moreover, this young woman has been working on walking for two years. She has probably fallen countless times, probably with little or no injury save bumps or bruises. There's no reason to think that if she fell during the ceremony that she'd be injured beyond that extent -- falling doesn't always mean hurting oneself.

Furthermore, someone with a mobility impairment who falls doesn't usually have a cause of action against someone else unless there were impediments which caused or exacerbated their fall -- if I am disabled and I fall on your floor because it is wet or uneven, then I have a reason to sue. If I am disabled and I fall on your wooden floor and injure myself further because you have knowingly left the wood raw and I get splinters all over my body during the impact, then I have a reason to sue. If I am disabled and I fall on your floor because my disability caused my legs to buckle, I do not have a reason to sue. Even moreso when I specifically indemnify you against any liability.

The principal trumped this young woman's dream, he says that it's due to fear of a potential lawsuit that almost certainly would not have happened or proceeded beyond its initial stages were in undertaken. He did so callously and almost certainly without consulting with anyone who could have advised him as to the legal issues which he claims were the reason for his decision. Nothing can undo the damage he has done, but it's time for him to stop spinning and excusing, and start apologising -- it would probably go a long way toward making things as right as they can become.
posted by Dreama at 4:27 PM on May 29, 2002


and the principal was exercising his responsibility to protect the girl from physical harm as best he could

That I have no problem with. Well, I actually have a big problem with it, but I know who to take it up with. Ultimately, it is his call to make, and from an entirely objective point of view, telling the girl that she had to use her wheelchair is little different than not letting students roller blade out to get their diplomas: it would be potentially unsafe and disruptive. The principal has to weigh those negatives against the unique situation and the positive meaning it would have for the girl, and we all know what he decided. Fine. I think it was wrong, but it was not my choice to make, and as far as I know there is no law requiring schools to let people walk to accept their diplomas.

What really gets me is the idea that the potential for a lawsuit somehow absolves him of responsibility for the decision.
posted by Nothing at 5:57 PM on May 29, 2002


This is dumb. Why couldn't they get another lectern, set it out below the stage, and let her walk to that? Creative thinking, people.
posted by dhartung at 6:07 PM on May 29, 2002


Educators' prime responsibility is to educate citizens not just to the "facts" of natural law, but to also educate citizens on their duties AS citizens. This principal obviously did not think that part of his job was very important, nor did he seem to think that his students should learn to have patience for those with disabilities. He failed his duties big-time. It is the school-board who is responsible for deciding financial decisions, they are the elected representatives, not him...

He willfully committed a potential federal civil rights crime (The Americans with Disabilities Act), exposing his district to not just civil lawsuits, but to federal ones as well. All in all, not a great educator in my book, by any standard.
posted by nomisxid at 6:10 PM on May 29, 2002


Hmm, wish I could have gotten to a PC sooner, not much to add at this point. Only that as heartless as this guy was, hopefully he did teach his graduating class a lesson in the everyday price we pay for our tort system, and about the wisdom of using legal liability as a decisionmaking crutch. Maybe one of those students will be radicalized enough by this incident to go on to law school and spearhead an overhaul of the whole rotten system. Maybe it will be Masha.

Anyway, I think a nice ending to this would be if Leno or Letterman or Conan has her on his show and she walks across the stage to take her seat on national TV.
posted by luser at 6:51 PM on May 29, 2002


To bad we don't really have "pursuit of happiness" in the US anymore.
posted by ArkIlloid at 7:21 PM on May 29, 2002


Nothing can undo the damage he has done, but it's time for him to stop spinning and excusing, and start apologising

isn't this a little melodramatic? he had a student take the safer mode of transportation across the stage, and thereby deprived her of making the graduation ceremony a personal victory for her, rather than a collective celebration of the achievement of finishing high school. Yeah, it would have been nice if she'd have been able to go far enough in therapy in the two years since she decided to make her graduation her goal, but apparently she just wasn't able to. (In a way he may have done her a favor by insuring that her symbolically victorious moment wasn't undermined by her falling on her face).

I feel for her, and I appreciate the importance of symbolic victories, but sometimes you don't get as far as you hoped to. It's not her inherent right to take up five minutes working her way across the stage when other graduates get 20 seconds. I wish her future success but wouldn't blame the principal for his decision here.
posted by mdn at 7:38 PM on May 29, 2002


Regarding the infamous hot coffee case that has become the poster child of frivolous litigation, there is a bit more to the story than is usually reported. Many widely circulated legal horror stories are equally misleading.

Which is not to say there aren't some seriously screwy lawsuits...
posted by John Smallberries at 7:51 PM on May 29, 2002


He willfully committed a potential federal civil rights crime (The Americans with Disabilities Act)

I doubt that. The stage was wheelchair accessible, which satisfies ADA requirements, as far as I know. I don't think the ADA protects people from being told to sit down by a school principal.
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:48 PM on May 29, 2002


This story is so sad. But not for the reasons everyone is talking about.

Read between the lines. This girl had a disabling spinal cord injury. As with most serious cord injuries, doctors didn't have much to offer besides rehabilitation and physical therapy. Desperate, she fell into the hands of a quack, who did an operation on her in Mexico, because it's recognized as a quack operation in the US, and no US hospital will allow a surgeon to do it here. But Third World countries are looser about these things.

Read the girl's site. Read it carefully. It sounds like she has had (predictably) NO benefit from the operation. But she wants desperately to believe she has, and she wanted to walk across that stage to validate that belief.

The principal's voice is the voice of reality, grim, dark, and painfully honest: You have a disabling spinal cord injury. You cannot walk safely. You have paid $57,000 for a quack operation that did nothing.

She didn't hear him.

Hope is a wonderful thing, but it must be grounded in reality. Reality is that medical science can't do much for this young woman. She must finish her grieving process, learn to live with her disability, and get on with her life, and that means forgoing things she is no longer physically capable of doing.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 12:01 AM on May 30, 2002


And late into the night, long after her mother has fallen asleep at the kitchen table while filling out form after form by hand in which she details the shame, embarrassment, and outright hurt caused to the general public by unfeeling school principals who, she declares in all caps, bold type and underlined, "ARE NOT OUR PALS"; long after the accused, still convinced of the rightness of his actions, yet gripped by the sensation of what young Master Wooster used to describe as "an uncertain dread," has downed his evening glass of warm milk and settled down for a night of not unfitful slumber, Masha sits up in bed, brooding over the injustices of the world and the pathos of desire unfulfilled when she is visited by a vision of a bodhisattva dressed in summery going-to-tennis apparel. She explains to Masha that sadness is the way of the world, but only because we cling to dreams. To be truly free, the enlightened one lilts on, has naught to do with acheiving desires, but with letting go, letting them vanish into nothing, and moving on.

This visit is followed a bit later in the evening by visions, first, of Debbie Mathers, who advises, between hiccups and some not very lucid commentary on lions (or was it loins) in the jungle, to press on with the litigation; and then even later by P.T. Barnum, who tells her there's a sucker born every minute, then blows cigar smoke into her face and vanishes. In the morning, she wakes remembering nothing of the visions, but vaguely feels that it would be somehow appropriate to sport a yellow visor and wristbands during courtroom appearances.

And what Slithy said above.
posted by Bixby23 at 1:31 AM on May 30, 2002


Slithy Tove, what are you talking about? Where on the girl's site does it say/imply the surgery was unsuccessful?
posted by luser at 7:07 AM on May 30, 2002


Slithy_Tove: one thing is to talk about reality, another is to suffer it. The so called grieving process is fighted, as far as I know, ALSO by doing thing that apparently are negated to peple with motion disability. Not everyone is immediately ready to face reality because reality is often cold , sometimes it's a long process .. that if done too quickly may have dangerous effects, like for instance depression or suicide.

So , IANAL, as long as the girl is well-informed about the risks of trying to walk and a doctor has informed her about the dangers of what she wants to do, a written disclaimer signed by the medic and the girl and a parent or guardian should be enough to safeguard school from any lawsuit.

Time required for the walk shouldn't be an issue, but I was informed that there are many spineless walking bastards out there not willing to spend 10 more minutes of their time to show support to the girl, even if they don't give a flying f*ck. No compassion, not even indirect sux imho.
posted by elpapacito at 7:30 AM on May 30, 2002


luser: Read between the lines. There are three dated entries on her website. 7 months after the surgery, her mom still has hope that she will be better 'in a couple of years'. Her doctors say 'there is no guarantee'. Money has run out for physical therapists. Translation: the surgery didn't work. She may or may not get a little better, but there was certainly no dramatic improvement after her expensive foreign surgery.

There are lots of little clinics in Mexico, just south of the border, doing bizarre, expensive treatments, preying on the hopes and fears of very sick people.

The description of her trying to walk with a walker is that she was wearing braces, lurched from side to side, and nearly fell a couple of times. Sounds like she has a nearly complete cord lesion. If the school lets her walk, and she falls and gets hurt, they could be on the hook for millions.

Can't you hear the plaintiff's attorney now, examining the principal on the stand, if he had made the opposite decision?

"Mr. Markham, you have said that you saw Ms. Malikina with her own eyes, barely able to walk. Her walker leaned back and forth, you said. Her legs went into spasm, you said. You can hardly claim you were unaware of her danger! And yet you let her walk across that stage, fall, and break her hip? She spent the next four months in traction, Mr. Markham, right at the most delicate part of her surgical rehabilitation for her spinal cord injury, just as she was beginning to make real progress! And now, because of your actions, she may never walk again!"

By this point, half the jury are in tears, and the other half are ready to string up poor Mr. Markham. Of course, the patient would never have walked again regardless, but the plaintiff's attorney will be able to provide a parade of 'expert' witnesses who will testify that the plaintiff would be playing professional tennis if only she hadn't fallen and re-injured herself on that fateful stage.

elpapacito: IANAL either, but I don't think you can sign a waiver that gets someone else off the hook for legal liability, not one that is iron-clad and guaranteed to stand up in court. I know this isn't true of medical care, anyway. Any MeFi lawyers want to comment?
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:08 AM on May 30, 2002


Follow-up: she got to walk. Not at her high school ceremony, which can never be redone, but at a private ceremony at Atlanta's indoor sports arena, attended by 1900 people, paid for by donations from area companies, with diploma presented by former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins.

That kicks all the ass there is.
posted by Sapphireblue at 1:51 AM on June 20, 2002


« Older A blasphemy trial out of the 17th century ...  |  World-wide obsession ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments