Student wrestler sues Pinellas school district over injuries sustained in hallway tussle

The Countryside High wrestler injured in the school's hallway earlier this year has filed a lawsuit against the Pinellas County School Board claiming that officials failed to provide a safe environment.

Richard Serra, 18, was slammed on his head Feb. 10 as he and another student engaged in horseplay. Blood and fluid oozed out of Serra's left ear, and he was taken by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center, where he remained in intensive care for three days and hospitalized for six.

Serra had a broken left rib, a skull fracture behind the left ear, a ruptured ear drum and a broken left collar bone that required surgery.

Clearwater police determined the incident was an accident. Serra, who had a 20-12 record wrestling at 103 pounds and was on his way to regionals, could not continue the season. He also had to put his attempts to go into the Army on hold.

"I believe the School Board was negligent in providing a safe environment and supervising its students," said Andy Steingold, the attorney representing Serra.

The school system had a "duty" to "provide and maintain a safe environment for its students … free from any abuse, neglect, hazards and/or dangerous conditions," said the lawsuit, which was filed in September.

Serra seeks damages in excess of $15,000, the lawsuit said. Because the school system has sovereign immunity, if a jury leans Serra's way, he can recover no more than $100,000.

The School Board will ask that the case be dismissed, said Andrea Zahn, the school system's spokeswoman.

"We will deny liability and seek summary judgment," Zahn said.

According to Serra (the Times is not naming the other student because of his age) and the Clearwater police, here's what happened that day:

Serra said the other student wandered into his second-period class and the two had a conversation until his teacher asked the student to leave. Serra said he told the other student about the upcoming regional wrestling match. Because he had finished third in the district, Serra advanced to the regional competition.

Later, in his last class of the day, Serra asked his teacher if he could leave 15 minutes early to go to his television production class to work on a project.

The last thing Serra says he remembers from that point is going to his locker.

In the police report, the other student said he had skipped class and saw Serra walking around. The student said he and Serra greeted each other and the two started to wrestle, and that Serra tried to put a wrestling move on him.

The report says that the student then picked Serra up and grabbed him around the chest/rib area. He went to throw Serra over his shoulder, but Serra's weight was too much for him and he lost his grip, the report said.

Several witnesses support the student's account, the report said. Teacher Sharon Buckman didn't see the beginning of the incident, but she said she did see where the student picked Serra up and threw him on the ground, the report said.

The student was suspended for 15 days.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

Student wrestler sues Pinellas school district over injuries sustained in hallway tussle 10/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 8:58pm]

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