(CN) – A Utah police officer is not liable for the death of a teenager who was shot in the head with a .38 pistol that was filled with blanks for a high school production of “Oklahoma,” a federal judge ruled.
The gun was meant to provide a realistic touch to a 2008 production of “Oklahoma” at the Desert Hills High School in St. George. After approving a set of rules regarding the handling and supervision of the weapon, school-resource police officer Stacy Richan allowed a parent to bring .38 Smith & Wesson pistol to school in a locked box and fire off a blank at a certain point in the play during daily rehearsals.
After a while, however, the rules seem to have been relaxed. Tucker Thayer, a 16-year-old sophomore who ran lights and sound for the production, was given the combination to the locked box and was allowed to fire a blank on at least one occasion, according to the ruling.
On one tragic evening in the fall of 2008, the gun was left unattended in the sound-and-light booth with Thayer. It went off accidentally near the boy’s head, according to a lawsuit filed by his father, Ron Thayer.
“The muzzle blast from the live blank drove skull fragments into Tucker’s brain,” the complaint states. “In addition a ‘blowback’ wound of approximately three inches in diameter was formed as the result of gases produced by the explosion of the gun powder exiting from the same hole they entered after being driven into Tucker’s brain.”
Thayer filed a federal complaint against the Washington County School District, the city of St. George, theater teacher Michael Eaton, Richan and others.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson granted summary judgment to Richan on Feb. 2, finding that the officer did nothing to create the danger that led to Tucker Thayer’s death.
“If we accept the danger at issue as the risk associated with high school students being in the presence of a gun that shoots blanks, it can be argued in a very general sense that Officer Richan helped create the danger by not insisting that a gun should not be allowed on to school property under any conditions,” Benson wrote. “But this contention has not been asserted by the plaintiffs, and would be overly broad and unsupported in any event. There is nothing in the record to show that it was Officer Richan who authorized the use of the gun, or that he had the power or was given the power by school officials to decide whether to allow the use of the gun in the play. Officer Richan was undisputedly not in charge of the school. He was a special resource officer. The facts show only that he made recommendations as to what rules should be implemented if the drama department were allowed to use a gun to shoot blanks during the play. All of the evidence the court has before it indicates that someone other than Officer Richan made the decision to allow the use of a gun during the play.”
Benson rejected Thayer’s claim that Richan should have followed up with the troupe to make sure his rules were being followed. The judge also did not find that Richan had “knowingly relaxed” his own rules when, several weeks prior to the incident, he allegedly allowed a student to walk 100 yards to the rehearsal space with the gun in her backpack.
“There is virtually no factual support for such conscious disregard of a known risk by Officer Richan,” the judge wrote. “To the contrary, he recommended rules to eliminate the risk, and he expected the rules would be followed. By those actions, Officer Richan was quite the opposite of a state actor who may be held accountable for reckless behavior under the danger creation theory.”