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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court Rules for Woman Who Mopped Up Suicide

(CN) - The Washington Court of Appeals allowed a school custodian to sue for emotional distress after she was forced to work late into the night to clean up after the suicide of a student she knew.

Debbie Rothwell became upset when she reported to the scene of the shooting, because she learned that the student was someone she knew personally. The student committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in the main entrance of the high school.

The principal told Rothwell to search the classroom for potential bombs. She found a book bag in a corner and began unloading it until deputies told her to stop. It had apparently belonged to the victim. She was later alarmed when she watched a bomb squad detonate a pipe bomb in the same bag she had dropped on the floor.

Rothwell cleaned the scene until 4:15 in the morning, disposing of blood, brain matter and bone chips. When she was finished, she said she emotionally distraught and physically ill.

Her distress continued, she claimed, when she was forced to clean up the memorial cards and flowers that well-wishers brought to the scene each day after the shooting. She sued the school district for infliction of emotional distress.

The district successfully argued at trial that Rothwell's claim was barred by the Washington Industrial Insurance Act, which provides the exclusive remedy for industrial injuries.

Judge Schultheis overturned the decision ruling that the Act does not bar Rothwell's claim.

"Ms. Rothwell correctly argues that her claim is specifically excluded from the statutory definition of an occupational disease," Schultheis wrote. "Her condition could have resulted from the stress of cleaning up the suicide scene, searching for bombs, or discovering that a bag that she handled might have contained an explosive device."

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