District to pay $1.5 million settlement in lawsuit involving potato gun

Ethan Hwang, Managing Editor

Palo Alto Board of Education member Jennifer DiBrienza speaks during Tuesday’s nights board meeting. The board unanimously voted during the closed session to settle an ongoing lawsuit involving an injured student. Photo: Kaahini Jain

The Palo Alto Unified School District will settle a lawsuit involving a student injured by a potato gun for $1.5 million, following a unanimous decision today by the Board of Education. 

The district will pay a maximum of $50,000 out-of-pocket, and the district’s insurance will cover the remaining cost of the settlement, including the attorney fees, according to Supt. Don Austin.

The Paly Voice obtained a copy of the lawsuit’s legal paperwork and it alleges the following. In 2017, the plaintiff, a student in eighth grade at the time, was injured by a potato gun made by the teachers, part of an experiment in a mathematics class at Jane L. Stanford Middle School. A bicycle pump pressurized the chamber of the potato gun and the potato was intended to be shot as a valve on the top of the gun opened. When it was the plaintiff’s turn to operate the potato gun, the student turned the valve but the gun did not fire. Several seconds later, the gun suddenly discharged and the potato hit the plaintiff in the face.

The suit names teachers Elizabeth Fee and Sue Duffek, volunteer Cass Apple and the school district as defendants. According to the claim, the defendants had a duty to conduct the experiment “with reasonable care” and “to protect him from foreseeable dangers.”

“Defendants and each of them breached this duty by allowing Plaintiff to operate the potato gun without proper supervision, appropriate protective equipment, inadequate safety training and by utilizing a homemade and defective potato gun,” the suit states.

In addition, the suit alleges that the school district also breached its duty by allowing Cass Apple, an individual who did not possess a teaching credential, to help conduct the experiment. Fee and Duffek are still currently teaching mathematics at JLS Middle School.

In the past two years, the district has been named as the defendant in a total of four cases, court records show. Some of the cases include an individual alleging that the district withheld documents and another involving student injuries.

This frequency of the lawsuits is not unusually high, Austin stated in an email to The Paly Voice, as the school district has 1,500 employees who serve over 11,000 students and 20,000 parents.

“I am more concerned about mistakes leading to litigation that are under our full control or any instances when a student is harmed physically or emotionally,” Austin stated. “In those scenarios, I hate to see a single case.”