School’s Reaction to Nut-|Allergy Death May Cost It

     (CN) – In the aftermath of a 7-year-old’s death from eating a peanut, school officials accused of blaming the mother must face defamation claims, Virginia’s highest court ruled.
     Laura Pendleton, a nurse, insists that she informed Hopkins Elementary School in Chesterfield County, Va., at the start of the school year about her daughter Amarria Johnson’s allergy to nuts and other foods.
     Though Pendleton allegedly brought the school an EpiPen Jr. to administer in case of emergency, she says the school’s clinic assistant told Pendleton to keep it at home and assured her that the school already had the necessary equipment.
     Pendleton’s fears were realized on Jan. 2, 2012, when her first-grade daughter’s classmate provided her with a peanut.
     Amarria reported bumps and became itchy, but she died shortly after without receiving Benadryl or epinephrine from the school, according to Pendleton’s complaint in Richmond County Circuit Court.
     Pendleton accused school personnel trying to duck blame in the ensuing international media frenzy by insinuating that she had concealed her daughter’s condition.
     “Persuaded by the defendants’ characterization of events, countless individuals, including the parents of other Chesterfield County Public Schools students, concluded and declared that Ms. Pendleton was a bad mother – the most hurtful and disparaging of labels,” the complaint alleged.
     The complaint includes a quotation attributed to Shawn Smith, the school district’s assistant director of community relations.
     “Execution of the plan is dependent on the parent’s ability to inform the school of needs and to provide the appropriate resources,” Smith allegedly told the media.
     Two articles also quoted Jody Enoch, public health nurse supervisor for the county health department, according to the complaint. “Parents need to provide all necessary medication their child needs to the school,” Enoch allegedly said. “That is the responsibility of the parent.”
     Pendleton sued Enoch, Smith and four others for defamation, but Judge Gregory Rupe sustained the defendants’ demurrer and dismissed the case.
     The Virginia Supreme Court reversed on June 4.
     “We conclude that in the context set forth in the complaint, the words ascribed to the defendants, given their plain meaning, are reasonably capable of conveying the defamatory innuendo of which the plaintiff complains,” Senior Justice Charles Russell wrote for the court.

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