UPDATE: The school board approved this settlement agreement in closed session on Tuesday, Feb. 25, in a 4-0 vote, with board member Ken Dauber absent.
The Palo Alto school board will consider approving in closed session next week a $1.5 million settlement with a former student whose eye was permanently damaged during a potato gun science experiment at JLS Middle School in 2017.
Lawyers for the school district filed a settlement notice in December and a judge heard the proposed amounts at a hearing in early January, court records show. The school board discussed the case in closed session on Feb. 11 but took no reportable action.
If the board approves the settlement agreement next Tuesday, the district will pay its maximum exposure of $50,000 and the remainder will be covered by insurance, Superintendent Don Austin said. He declined to comment further.
In a claim filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court in 2018, the parents of the student alleged that the district and teachers breached their duty to conduct the experiment "with reasonable care" and to protect the student from "foreseeable dangers." They also alleged that the adults in the classroom — two math teachers and a volunteer, named as defendants in the lawsuit — failed to provide proper supervision and adequate safety training for the experiment.
The claim alleged that the student, then 13 years old, was participating in a school experiment with homemade potato guns, conducting mathematical calculations based on the distance the potato traveled. When it was the student's turn to operate the gun, he turned a valve to release pressurized air and "nothing happened," the claim states.
"After several seconds the gun suddenly discharged striking (the student) in his face and causing significant permanent injuries," the claim reads.
The incident permanently damaged the student's retina, attorney Paul Van Der Walde said, and caused an orbital fracture, or a traumatic injury to the bone of the eye socket. He was reportedly homebound for several months after the experiment and has since left the school district.
Van Der Walde did not respond to a request for comment.
The total settlement includes attorney's fees and reimbursement for medical expenses. It is also comprised of $475,000 in a series of payments to the former student over the next three decades, starting in 2021. The payments include $30,000 annually for the next five years; $500 monthly for 13 years; $1,000 monthly for 30 years; and a lump sum payment of $177,000 in 2033.
A hearing to formally dismiss the case is set for April.