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Grieving Family Awarded $18M in Lawsuit Against Late Child’s School District

Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District’s extended school program was intended to support special needs children whose hard work and progress would suffer from a long summer break. Moises Murillo, an eight-year-old boy with severe Down syndrome, was enrolled in the program. Because of his limited mobility, Moises used a special wheelchair that supported his head, trunk, torso, legs, and feet. His IEP, or individualized education program, contained instructions regarding all medical needs and accommodations, including the importance of the wheelchair. Unfortunately, his new extended school program teachers failed to read this essential file on Moises’ care.

On the second day of extended school, one of the new teachers tried to position Moises’ wheelchair under the child-sized desks in the classroom. When his essential medical equipment wouldn’t fit under the school desk, the teaching staff decided to remove him from his wheelchair to seat him in a chair that did fit under the desks. However, because he lacked trunk stability and without the support of his wheelchair, Moises wobbled from side to side. To prevent this movement, staff tied a gait belt around Moises’ chest and the back of the chair, to restrain the eight-year-old boy. After securing him to the chair, all staff members left Moises unattended. Left unsupervised, Moises fell backwards in his chair and suffered a spinal injury that killed him instantly.

Attorney Steve Vartazarian of The Vartazarian Law Firm heard about the case from a friend who thought he might be interested. He was. Steve met with Moises’ parents and sister, and knew he had to help the Murillo family get justice for their loved one’s death. He pored through the 98-page police report and countless interviews looking for even one straightforward account of what happened to Moises in the room that day, but there wasn’t one.

Everyone had an excuse for why they removed Moises from his chair, tied him up, and left him alone, but Steve could feel that something wasn’t adding up. He went over and over the evidence until he realized the missing piece that made it all fall together: instead of adapting the environment to Moises, the teachers tried to force Moises to fit in with his new classroom environment. That directly contradicted his IEP. Once the scenario took shape in his mind, Steve reached out to DK Global to start on an animation of the accident. More pieces of the puzzle began to take shape as Steve dove deeper and deeper into the case. He worked with animators to show the real story of what had happened to Moises that day until he was certain he had a video that would bring the little boy to justice.

The video began with an animation of Moises’ face, over which his skull was then shown. The video zoomed in to a view of his spinal cord with the C1 and C2 vertebrae labeled. A side view cross section then revealed the inner structure of the spinal cord. A rendered impact rattled the spine and showed the bone fracture and subsequent compression of the spinal cord that killed Moises.

The next section of the video depicted Moises sitting, tied by the gait belt at the chest, in the blue desk chair. The animation showed Moises’ skeletal and nervous system, where electric blue lines pulsed through his body to indicate his brain’s communication with the body. The video zoomed in on his heart and lungs before zooming out, at which point the animation showed Moises rocking backwards in the chair.

The video stayed centered around Moises’ head as he fell back and hit his head on the cement ground, breaking his neck. The animation switched to a closeup rendering of Moises’ spine at the moment of impact and portrayed the injury that Moises suffered. A zoomed out shot then showed Moises on the ground as the electric blue lines turn orange and change route to demonstrate the disruption to his body and brain processes. The next scene of the video showed Moises on the ground, tied to the chair, with the three shadowy silhouettes of his teachers standing with their attention elsewhere.

The last sequence of the video began with a photo of Moises next to a photo of his wheelchair, before switching to a photo of the plastic blue desk chair and the gait belt used to tie Moises to the chair. The animation proceeded to depict a full body view of Moises sitting tied to the chair. It then showed a full view of classroom, where Moises sat at one end of the room and his two teachers stood, not facing him, at the other end. The third teacher is shown slightly in front of Moises with their back turned. Then, the animation showed Moises fall backwards again, once from afar and once from a closer view. Beside Moises’ head, a photograph of the overturned desk chair appeared on the screen.

Steve showed the animation during the deposition of a Defense expert, and every jaw in the room dropped. The Defense protested against letting the animation into evidence and tried to refute the truth of the animation’s depiction of events, but Steve knew he had won the case. After discussions with the Defense, the school district settled the case for $18,000,000.

Steve Vartazarian of The Vartazarian Law Firm is a personal injury lawyer specializing in extremely catastrophic events. He is a board member of the American Board of Trial Attorneys (ABOTA), the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA), the Los Angeles Trial Lawyer’s Charities (LATLC), and the Brain Society of California. He was named the CAALA Trial Attorney of the Year in 2019, the year he made California history by obtaining the highest pain and damage award for a single Plaintiff. The accolades aren’t what matters to Steve, who says he became a personal injury lawyer to right the egregious wrongs in the cases that come across his desk.

"Without that animation, there is no way this case would have settled for $18,000,000, period."
Steven R. Vartazarian - The Vartazarian Law Firm
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