By Dan Linehan firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Tuesday, August 25, 2015 5:01 pm
LE CENTER — An 11 year old Sleepy Eye boy who was badly burned by fire at a YMCA camp in 2013 has been awarded more than $500,000 by a Le Sueur County jury.
The six member jury unanimously decided Monday the YMCA was 80 percent responsible for the injury. Camp Patterson, which the Mankato YMCA has long rented for two weeks a year, was deemed 15 percent responsible, and the boy was 5 percent responsible.
The accident happened June 28, 2013, when Sir Spartucus Marion Sanders, then age 9, tripped and fell partly into a fire pit. He suffered second and thirddegree burns on his right arm, hand and left wrist. He has undergone three surgeries and received medical care costing more than $150,000.
In their court filings, the YMCA and the camp argued the case was simply about a young child tripping with untied shoelaces when he was near a fire ring. No one was negligent, they argued, and
no one was to blame.
But the boy’s attorney, Nathan Bjerke, argued in court the YMCA needed to do more to keep kids away from dangerous places at the camp. The YMCA had rules, he said, about how campers were supposed to exit the campfire area without coming near the fire pit. “That was our point to the jury,” he said. “The adults need to keep the kids under control.” Assuming the verdict withstands a possible appeal, the money would be deposited in a trust the boy could begin to access in increments as early as age 18, said his court appointed guardian, Minneapolis attorney Douglas Shrewsbury. He is the boy’s guardian only for the purpose of the lawsuit and was appointed because his father has health problems after experiencing a stroke.
Shrewsbury said the boy has made a decent recovery, though he has extensive scarring from skin grafts. “He’s really a wonderful, cute kid,” he said. No one alleged the boy was misbehaving on that Thursday evening in June, the last night of the five day camp along Lake Washington. The campers had finished a talent show around the fire and headed down to Lake Washington to watch a counselor sing a song.
Bjerke said there were differing descriptions of what happened next, including whether the boy walked or ran and whether the counselors were sitting with the children when they headed off.
One of the camp's own counselors, though, chose an unfortunate word, from the YMCA’s perspective, to describe how the children left the benches at about 9:15 that night.
That was the word a counselor used during a recorded interview conducted by the YMCA's insurance company shortly after the accident, Bjerke said. And it was one the attorney repeated
during the sixday trial. “You just don’t let 75 kids walk by a firepit,” he said Tuesday.
The defendants said in court filings the fire had dwindled to “embers and coals,” though Bjerke said Tuesday it was still active. It was, in any case, hot enough to severely burn the boy, known as Sir. He was initially taken to the hospital in Mankato, then was sent to the Hennepin County Medical Center. He underwent surgery there and stayed for two weeks. In addition to his burns, he has scarring from skin grafts on his thigh and buttock. He saw a counselor to help him adjust psychologically to the burns and scars, but that’s normal, Bjerke said.
He said the family sued after the insurance company offered them $10,000.
Calls to the attorneys for the camp and YMCA weren’t returned, but in court filings they disputed the assertion that children were running or playing near the firepit. Mankato Family YMCA Executive Director John Kind said he believes the injury was an accident. “Obviously, we regret that the young man burned himself at the camp,” he said. But, still, he said “accidents happen and you have to do what you can.” He said a decision has yet to be made on an appeal. If it ends up being paid, the money will likely come from the YMCA’s insurance provider, he said, so unless the nonprofit’s insurance rates go up, it will not have a financial loss from the verdict.
Because the jury found the boy 5 percent at fault, the overall award will be reduced by that amount, Bjerke said. That was a bit surprising, he said, and guessed the boy’s untied shoelaces may have come into play. But the defendants also were ordered to pay for the interest that would have accrued if the award were made at the time of the accident (or perhaps when the lawsuit started; Bjerke said it’s a gray area).
Though the YMCA's initial filings repeatedly claimed the boy’s father, Marcus Grubbs, signed a waiver releasing the YMCA from liability for accidents, the jury never heard about it.
That's because Judge Mark Vandelist ruled it was unenforceable earlier in the trial, when the YMCA and the camp asked him to toss out the suit. Tucking the waiver form into a document to collect information raised “red flags” to the judge. “Clear notice must be given when a person is to sign away important rights and claims,” Vandelist wrote. “The scope of this waiver is ambiguous, the exculpatory clause is unenforceable.” In 2013, Minnesota passed a law saying these waivers can’t protect defendants from major — “willful” or “wanton,” in legal parlance — negligence. But this waiver didn’t make that distinction, making it overly broad, Bjerke said.
It's not clear who will help manage the boy's trust, but Shrewsbury hopes they talk about how it could help send him to college. The boy has had what looks to be a challenging life, with his father’s medical condition and the family’s moves from Illinois to Richfield to Sleepy Eye. “It’s pretty clear this could give him opportunities in the future he doesn’t have now,” Shrewsbury
said. The $507,506.33 award was split between past and future health expenses, which amounted to 40 percent of the total, and to pain and suffering. His attorneys will take an undisclosed portion.
In a deposition, his father described Sir as a fast runner, a jokester and a wrestler. Shrewsbury added the boy’s secondfavorite subject is math. “I think he’s a smart kid,” he said.