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District ordered to pay in death of student

A jury awards the girl's family $10.3 million. She was struck by a van in the parking lot of an L.A. Unified school in Encino.

February 07, 2007|Charles Proctor | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury has awarded $10.3 million to the family of a first-grader who was struck by a van and killed in the parking lot at Lanai Road Elementary School in Encino in 2005.

The jury found the Los Angeles Unified School District at fault because the parking lot, where 6-year-old Jordan Sandels was killed, was not designed according to state-approved blueprints. The jury also found that the district had been notified of possibly dangerous conditions in the parking lot before the accident.

Michael Sandels, Jordan's father, called the verdict in the wrongful-death lawsuit an "incredible victory" and said he intended to use the money to open a foundation to address safety issues at schools nationwide.

"The trial was the closing of that part of our life," Sandels said. "Now starts the part of our life which is dedicated to doing things in her name."

Kevin Reed, Los Angeles Unified's general counsel, said that although the district believed that Jordan's death was an "unbelievably tragic accident," the responsibility ultimately rested with the van's driver.

"We think the district staff did everything they could have done to look out for an accident that could be foreseeable," he said.

The award is "among the largest we've ever suffered," Reed said.

Reed said the district was considering its legal options, including whether to appeal Thursday's verdict.

The jury in the trial at the Van Nuys Courthouse found that the district was 80% responsible for the accident, which occurred on Jan. 13, 2005. The van's driver, Lauri Dowling, was responsible for 20%, the jury decided, but would not have to pay damages. Dowling declined to comment.

On Jan. 13, 2005, Michael Sandels picked up Jordan from the campus on Lanai Road. They held hands as they walked on the school's sidewalk.

Meanwhile, Dowling, a parent at the school, backed her 1993 Dodge Caravan out of a handicapped spot in the parking lot. According to court records, Dowling, who suffers from a debilitating illness, had lost the use of her legs. Her vehicle was equipped with a hand-controlled acceleration and brake lever.

Dowling lost control of her vehicle. The van, still in reverse, jumped the sidewalk, struck Jordan, veered into the street and crashed into a car.

Sandels was talking to Jordan about an obstacle course she had run earlier that day. Suddenly, he felt her torn from his grasp.

"As far as I know, I wasn't even grazed," he said. "I was looking all over because I had no idea what had happened."

After hearing the crash, Sandels saw a little body pinned beneath the van.

"How do you describe that moment, when you're bargaining with God?" he recalled. "I thought: 'Please don't let it be her laying under the car.'

"And it was."

Jordan was rushed to Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center in Encino, where she was pronounced dead.

Sandels and wife Nicky were devastated. "She was my best friend," he said. "She had such a sense of humor and was so well-behaved."

Mark J. Henderson, the family's lawyer, argued in court that the parking lot's design did not conform to the school's original blueprints. According to those plans, the parking space should have been angled away from the sidewalk. But the parking space was positioned such that Dowling had to reverse toward the sidewalk.

Henderson also argued that the school and the district knew that the parking lot was dangerous because students and parents frequently crossed it on foot after school as cars pulled out from parking spaces. At the time, Lanai Road Elementary had a morning drop-off plan, but in the afternoon many parents had to park at a distance from the school and walk on campus to pick up their children, according to court records.

Madeline Latham-Wilson, the school's principal at the time of the accident, said in a deposition that parents had complained to her weekly about how chaotic and dangerous the parking lot was, and that she had alerted the district to this "numerous" times.

In addition, a letter to the district dated June 17, 1999, from then-Principal John Bowes, requested permission to move the two handicapped parking spots to a secondary parking lot.

Reed, the district's counsel, said he did not believe that "there could be a warning that something this bizarre and tragic" could happen.

"I don't believe anyone could have foreseen that the angle in which the parking space is positioned would in any way cause the driver of the van to peel out of a parking space at full speed, jump the curb and strike someone," he said.

Henderson said he hoped that the verdict would draw attention to parking and traffic safety on other campuses.

"At many other schools out there, particularly elementary schools, they need to be put on notice that you really need to have a plan, particularly during the afternoon pickup time," he said.

After Jordan's death, the school erected a barrier near where she was struck. The district also began a review of traffic safety practices on all campuses, Reed said. But district officials said they did not believe that students are at risk.

"The district is never going to stop at doing just what city codes require," Reed said. "We're always going to look at any circumstances that might create risk for students ... and make sure all foreseeable accidents are prevented."

Sandels, his wife and young son moved to New Jersey about six months ago. He said the foundation he planned to open in Jordan's name would spread awareness of school safety issues, lobby for legislation on school safety, and provide a resource for parents.

"These dangerous situations around elementary schools can be a thing of the past," he said. " I hope people in the future can look around them and say, 'Wow, can you imagine what it was like?' "

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charles.proctor@latimes.com

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