An elementary school teacher who was shot by her 6-year-old student in a classroom in Virginia can move forward with a $40 million lawsuit against the school district, a judge ruled Friday.
Attorneys for the district, Newport News Public Schools, have tried to block the lawsuit, which accuses it of gross negligence, and said first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner should only be eligible for workers’ compensation.
Judge Matthew Hoffman of Newport News Circuit Court said Ms. Zwerner’s injuries “did not arise from her employment,” making her eligible for more than just workers’ compensation.
“The danger of being shot by a student is not peculiar or exclusive to the work of a first-grade teacher,” Judge Hoffman wrote in his ruling.
The boy fired a single shot at Zwerner, 26, in January while he was teaching at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, about 70 miles southeast of Richmond.
When the shot was fired, Mrs. Zwerner raised her left hand, where the bullet passed before hitting her chest, police said.
She was seriously injured, but was able to direct her students, up to 20 children, into the hallway while another teacher restrained the boy who had fired the gun, authorities said.
In the hours before the shooting, school leaders were warned three times that the boy might have a gun, Zwerner’s attorneys said, and a teacher had searched the student’s backpack for a gun but found none.
Prosecutors said the boy would not be charged.
The boy used a Taurus 9-millimeter handgun that the Newport News Police Department said had been purchased legally by his mother at the time. In June, the boy’s mother, Deja Taylor, pleaded guilty to separate federal criminal charges for using marijuana while she possessed a firearm and making false statements about drug use when she purchased the gun. In August, she pleaded guilty to felony child neglect. Her sentencing is scheduled for December.
Ms. Taylor’s lawyer, James S. Ellenson, told the New York Times in August that the charge carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but that prosecutors had agreed not to deviate from the state’s recommendation of one to six. months in prison. given her lack of criminal record.
Ms. Zwerner filed her lawsuit against the school district and former school officials in April.
In Virginia, workers who file claims for a workplace injury can only do so under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law and cannot file personal injury claims. Under the law, Ms. Zwerner would earn two-thirds of her teacher’s salary for nearly 10 years and receive medical benefits for life, The Virginian-Pilot reported.
Ms. Zwerner’s lawyers have argued that being shot by a student is not a workplace risk.
Judge Hoffman said in his ruling that the injury did not arise from Ms. Zwerner’s employment because «a first-grade teacher would not expect to be shot by one of his students» and that the shooting was «personal.»
The judge noted that two days before the shooting, the student had smashed Ms. Zwerner’s cell phone on the ground. On the day of the shooting, the boy “at no time threatened any other student, teacher, or school administrator with the firearm,” Judge Hoffman wrote.
Anne Lahren, the school district’s chief attorney, said in a statement that the district planned to appeal the ruling.
“The real employment risk in this scenario is a teacher being injured at the hands of a student, which, unfortunately, is a fairly common occurrence and is increasing in frequency today,” he said.
Ms. Lahren said that for a “personal” action to override the Workers’ Compensation Act, the “personal reason must not be related to or arise from employment.”
Zwerner’s attorneys said in a statement that the judge’s ruling was an important step on the «path to justice for Abby.»
«We look forward to continuing our pursuit of accountability and a just recovery,» the statement said. “No teacher expects to stare down the barrel of a gun wielded by a 6-year-old student.”
The trial is scheduled for January 2025.