The parents of two Merrol Hyde Magnet School students say a May 9, 2018 fire at the school caused permanent physical and/or mental health damage to their children, according to two separate lawsuits filed earlier this year in Sumner County Circuit Court.
Each lawsuit claims the Sumner County Board of Education was negligent in allowing a teacher to conduct a science experiment that caused the fire. One lawsuit is seeking $850,000 in damages while the other is asking for $100,000.
In its answers to the lawsuits, the school system denies any negligence or wrongdoing and suggests the students themselves may be to blame for their injuries.
Seventeen students and a teacher were injured in what Hendersonville Fire Chief Scotty Bush labeled a flash fire at the school just before 9 a.m. on May 9, 2018.
Bush said at the time that the fire was caused by a science teacher conducting a common experiment of mixing boric acid and ethyl alcohol. The fire was extinguished quickly by the teacher and was contained to one classroom.
The teacher and four students suffered second-degree burns and were taken to Hendersonville Medical Center and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Bush said at the time.
Lawsuit: Student suffered permanent injuries
In a lawsuit filed April 3 by a mother on behalf of her minor daughter, the mother says her daughter was in English class when she and other students were taken to teacher Hunter Gann’s science classroom to be supervised.
Gan was mixing chemicals and burning materials in preparation for a later class while supervising the woman’s daughter and other students, according to the complaint.
“Suddenly and without warning, there was an explosion in the classroom, causing severe injuries to [the daughter] and other individuals,” the complaint states.
“As a result of the explosion, [she] suffered serious and significant injuries. Due to the severity of these injuries, they are permanent in nature.”
The school system created unsafe and/or dangerous conditions by allowing Gann to burn chemicals and materials in the classroom, the lawsuit alleges, “all of which constitute negligence.”
The mother is asking for $750,000 in compensatory damages for her daughter as well as $100,000 in damages the mother incurred for medical bills, lost wages, grief, worry and emotional distress.
In its answer filed May 13, the Sumner County Board of Education denies any negligence or wrong doing.
“The injuries alleged are due to the negligence of others or third parties for whom Sumner does not respond at law,” reads the answer signed by Sumner County Law Director Leah May Dennen.
“The minor may have been sitting too close to the experiment and/or sitting on top of the table instead of in her chair.”
Dennen, who oversees the county’s risk management office, said at the time of the accident that Sumner County would pay the medical expenses of those injured.
“There are certain times when I feel like it’s in the best interest for all involved to make sure medical care is provided and that’s what we chose to do with this,” she said.
Attorney Rocky McElhaney says the county did pay for some students’ medical benefits, but not this one.
“They are denying they are responsible to my client,” said McElhaney who is representing the mother in the lawsuit. “They are saying that it is her fault.”
McElhaney said the girl suffered permanent scars on her face and neck.
“It’s a tragic accident that’s going to harm her for the rest of her life and it’s unfortunate that Sumner County refuses to take responsibility,” he said.
First lawsuit was filed in March
McElhaney’s was the second lawsuit filed in response to the incident.
In a lawsuit filed March 5, the parents of a male student say he was in Christine Walker’s classroom when Walker left to take some students to read books to other children. Walker secured science teacher Jeffrey Hunter Gann to supervise her students while she was out.
Gann, while in the role of supervising the students in the classroom lit an open flame with a Bunsen burner and placed a chemical substance in a bowl and poured a liquid over it, according to the complaint.
“Suddenly and without notice the substance ‘flashed’ and exploded and hurled a large flame over the immediate area where the minor plaintiff was seated near the table involved and set fire to minor plaintiff’s hair, skin and shirt,” the lawsuit says. “Said negligence of Gann is directly imputed to the defendant, Sumner County School Board.”
The lawsuit alleges the male student suffered burns to his entire face including his forehead, cheeks, around his lips and chin, neck and right ears in addition to burns on his left dorsal hand and wrists.
The lawsuit also claims that the male student endured pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and permanent disability and that he has suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The parents, who are represented by attorney Joseph Longmire, are asking for a $100,000 judgement as well as additional damages for medical expenses.
In its answer filed May 6, the Sumner County Board of Education denies any wrongdoing or negligence. The school system admits that the student was a student in Walker’s science class and that Walker had to remove half of her students to read books.
The school system also admits that Walker asked Gann to watch her students, but denies that Gann used a Bunsen burner. It admits that a flame occurred but says it didn’t have sufficient knowledge to admit or deny whether the fire affected the child.
“The minor may have been sitting too close to the experiment,” the answer says.
Longmire could not be reached for comment.
The Sumner County Board of Education is asking that both lawsuits be dismissed and that the plaintiffs be assessed attorneys’ fees and court costs.
Dennen declined to comment on the lawsuits.
Gann - a first year teacher - had resigned his position before the accident with plans to move to another state.