Gym Teacher not Liable in Student’s Dry-Drowning Death

A gym teacher whose student “dry drowned” more than an hour after inhaling water is not responsible for his death, the Third Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Juanya Spady died on Jan. 2, 2010, after a group of students at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, PA dunked the 10th grader in the pool during physical-education class.

Gym teacher Carlton Rodgers allowed Spady to rest on the bleachers after the incident, but then ordered him back in the pool for the rest of the class, despite Spady complaining of chest pain.
Spady went to English class without complaint. About an hour into class, though, he had a seizure – the teacher observed “labored breath, general unresponsiveness, and a pink, frothy fluid escaping from Juanya’s nose and mouth.” The teen was taken to a nearby hospital
and died later that day.

Spady’s mother, Mica, later sued the school district and Rodgers, submitting a medical report that attributes Spady’s death to a rare condition called “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning,” which occurs when water is inhaled and only later causes the vocal chords to spasm and block airways, or leaks into the lungs.

Though a federal judge advanced the lawsuit last year, the Third Circuit found that Rodgers should not be held liable for Spady’s “undeniably tragic” death.

Mica claimed a violation of the 14th Amendment, accusing the teacher of a “state-created-danger.”

“The question is whether the law in this context was so well-established that it would have been apparent to a reasonable gym teacher that failure to take action to assess a non-apparent condition that placed the student in mortal danger violated that student’s constitutional right under the state-created-danger theory of liability,” Judge Thomas Vanaskie wrote for a three-person panel.

This was not the case here, according to the ruling, which found the situation too unprecedented – and the delayed death too unusual – for Rodgers to consider that he had put Spady in mortal danger.