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Animated Anatomy of Drowning Student Aids in $11M Settlement and New CA Safety Laws

Summer break was approaching. The band students from a Murrieta middle school eagerly awaited a school-sanctioned pool party celebrating the end of the year. The school promised parents a fun, safe, and supervised event. Unfortunately, this could not have been further from the truth. Rahul Ravipudi and Robert Glassman of Panish Shea & Boyle LLP represented the parents of 13-year-old Alex Pierce, a student who tragically drowned at the event after lifeguards and staff failed to act. The two attained the family an $11 million settlement and prompted statewide safety laws requiring CPR-certified staff to be present at school events.

Surveillance footage captured the children enjoying the pool while high school students lifeguarded the area under a teacher’s supervision. Alex swam in the deep end until he became fatigued from treading water. Unable to swim to safety, he began waving for someone to save him, but the lifeguards did not notice. After being submerged for two minutes, Alex’s classmates saw him unconscious at the bottom of the pool and heroically dragged him to the surface, pleading for help. Reluctantly, the lifeguards finally jumped in with a floatation device. However, with fear and panic mounting, they kept Alex floating in the pool for seven minutes as the adult lifeguard coach stood by. When paramedics arrived, they immediately dove into the water, pulled Alex out, and attempted to resuscitate him. Sadly, Alex had been without oxygen for nine minutes, suffering an anoxic brain injury. After Alex remained in a month-long coma, his parents made the painful decision to remove him from life support.

Murrieta Valley Unified School District took no accountability for Alex’s drowning. They issued an offensive and callous press release soon after, stating the incident was not their responsibility. Disturbed by the school district’s lack of empathy and shaken by the loss of their son, Alex’s parents contacted Panish Shea & Boyle, LLP. Rahul and Robert stepped in and began their litigation by refuting the district’s egregious statement, confirming that MVUSD was, in fact, accountable for the pool party. Depositions of the lifeguard coach revealed that he did not act because he feared being sued and that his insurance would not cover his actions.

As the two prepared for trial, they needed to demonstrate how Alex’s death was preventable had the lifeguards and staff acted sooner. They retained a neurologist to describe the timeframe to use life-saving measures before irreversible damage ensued. Then, Rahul and Robert brought on DK Global to craft a visual aid to show Alex’s anatomy as he drowned and complement the neurologist’s testimony.

The presentation began with a 3D model of Alex’s likeness before showing surveillance footage of the pool party. The footage showed Alex unable to keep his head above the water’s surface, flailing his arms for help as he drowned. Then, a model of Alex’s respiratory system demonstrated how water entered his larynx, causing it to close involuntarily to prevent fluid and air from entering. A timer displayed the critical minutes passing as Alex sank to the bottom of the pool. Alex’s loss of consciousness caused his larynx to open and water to fill his lungs. After being without oxygen for nearly two minutes, Alex's classmates pulled him to the surface. Next, the high school lifeguards jumped in and floated Alex around the pool for another seven minutes as his classmates watched in horror. Paramedics finally arrived and attempted to save Alex, but it was too late – Alex suffered a fatal anoxic brain injury.

Before their mediation, Robert and Rahul shared the presentation with the district’s Defense counsel, staff, and mediators. As a result, the school district offered $11 million to settle the case. However, Alex’s parents were not satisfied with monetary compensation alone. They demanded the school district to write an apology letter accepting full responsibility for Alex's death, make and enact a viable emergency action plan, and require all staff to be CPR-certified to ensure this tragedy never happens to another family. Three years later, then-Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez introduced Alex’s Law, requiring all California athletic programs to have CPR-trained personnel at events and districts to offer life-saving training to its employees.

Rahul Ravipudi is a partner at Panish Shea & Boyle LLP and has spent his legal career handling catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases. Ravipudi has been named “2020 Plaintiff’s Lawyer Trailblazer” by the National Law Journal and has continuously been recognized among the “Best Lawyers” by Super Lawyers since 2013.

Robert Glassman was recognized among the “Best Lawyers in America” and has been continuously named a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers since 2013. Glassman was selected as a finalist for the Consumer Attorney of the Year award for his work on Pierce v. Murrieta Valley Unified School District, a prestigious honor for advancing the safety of students statewide.

"The interactive discussion on how do we do this; how do we use the surveillance footage... where does the neurologist's opinions come in. The illustration DK Global created was fantastic."
Rahul Ravipudi - Panish Shea & Boyle LLP
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