BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — A former high school student who was mobbed at a pep rally while wearing a chicken suit was awarded $10.5 million in his lawsuit against a Southern California school district.
Kern High School District agreed to pay $10.5 million to Mitch Carter after a state jury found it 100 percent liable for his injuries.
His attorney, Nicholas Rowley, donned the chicken suit to make his closing argument.
“No one else had the courage to wear it except Mitch Carter,” Rowley said in an interview. “I wanted to feel what it was like to be in the suit. It was humiliating. It was hard to see. Stinky. Uncomfortable. Hot. No padding. Only by getting in the suit could I show this to the jury.
“When I was done I put the costume on the defense lawyers’ table and said: ‘You should be the ones wearing it.’ I challenged them to put it on; they wouldn’t.”
Bringing the chicken suit to life three feet from the jurors rather than having them watch it on the screen helped them connect with what Carter went through, Rowley said.
“Imagine being beat up in that. Imagine being told to go back out after being beaten up.”
Rowley said the June 27 jury award “is going to change the community, the state, and the world in a good way. “The district and its lawyers are saying they will look at their policies and make changes so something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Carter, now 24, was 17 when he wore the chicken suit at a 2010 pep rally at Bakersfield High School to mock the mascot of the opposing team, the Clovis West High School Golden Hawks.
During the rally several students, including many members of the football team, piled onto Carter, kicking and punching him. He suffered mild traumatic brain injury and spent six months in a brain injury treatment center.
Rowley said the school activities director, Anna Lavin, forced Carter to keep wearing the costume even after two students briefly attacked him, threatening him with a $75 rental fee if he took it off.
Minutes after he returned to the floor to finish the skit, students dog-piled him. He said in the lawsuit that school officials did not act quickly enough to stop the mock fight.
Rowley said the same thing had happened to a teacher a few years earlier, who suffered broken ribs, several broken bones, a torn bicep and shoulder injuries.
After the jurors found the district 100 percent liable for Carter’s injuries, the district on Wednesday offered the $10.5 million settlement before the damages phase began.
Rowley said Carter and his family are happy with the settlement, though holding the school district responsible was the goal of the lawsuit.
“When the jury came back with 100 percent liability, Mitch and his mom broke out in tears,” Rowley said. “It was beautiful to be a part of this case. To be lead trial lawyer on this case is a career highlight. It’s humbling.”
Since the school district wins roughly 95 percent of the lawsuits filed against it, Rowley said, no lawyer in Bakersfield would touch the case until it came to Ralph Wegis, who worked on the case for five years before bringing in Rowley.
Carter plans to use the money for his health-care costs, already more than $100,000 and expected to reach $5 million, and for college.
Carter, a former honor roll student, is suffering from poor grades stemming from anxiety, depression, memory problems and mood problems — all classic symptoms of frontal lobe damage, Rowley said.
Since the frontal lobe does not stop developing in boys until their mid-20s, the attack prevented his brain from developing during that crucial period. Because of a pituitary gland injury, he now has the hormone levels of a 90-year-old man, Rowley said.
“But he’s going to be better,” Rowley said. “We’re going to set up a prosthetic environment to make sure we can get him the things he wouldn’t be able to get on his own,” like extra time for tests and assignments, tutors, counseling for him and his family, and a lifetime regime of human growth hormone, which will cost close to $1 million because Carter’s health insurance does not cover it.
Cindy Robinson, public information assistant for the district, told Courthouse News in an email that the beating never should have happened.
“The jury assigned the district with 100 percent liability and we humbly accept that responsibility. … The district is going to take this opportunity to evaluate its standards, policies, and practices to ensure that every student is educated in a safe and secure environment — because every parent and student should expect nothing less. We sincerely wish Mr. Carter and his family all the best as they move forward,” she wrote.
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