Georgia student burned in “rainbow demo” alcohol fire to receive $1.5 million

A woman who was burned in a 2013 fire started when a high school teacher added methanol to an already-burning rainbow flame test demonstration will receive $1.5 million as part of a legal settlement, says the Daily Report, a news organization that covers Georgia courts and law. From the story:

According to the plaintiff’s lawyers and the complaint in the case, Chapel Hill [High School] was hosting an Advanced Placement open house on the evening of Oct. 3, 2013. As part of the event, [student Olivia Johnson] and an instructor, Ashley Mathieson, were conducting a chemistry experiment in the school hallway that involved identifying various chemicals by the color of the flame they emit when burned.

As part of the experiment, substances were placed in a crucible or petri dish and Mathieson poured liquid methanol over them from a 4-liter jug, which Johnson would then light. The complaint said Johnson was holding a lighter to the dish when Mathieson became engaged in an “animated conversation” with another student and her mother, turning her back to Johnson, the complaint said.

Mathieson abruptly turned and poured more methanol on the open flame, causing a “flash fire that engulfed [Johnson] in a ball of flames.” …

A series of “after” [photos of Johnson] shows widespread scarring on her hands, arms, chest, back and neck. …

[Attorney Joseph Neal Jr. said that] school systems are protected from suit by sovereign immunity, while school employees enjoy the protection of official immunity. Only if such an employee can be shown to have negligently performed or failed to perform a ministerial duty—one which is mandated by rule or law—is there exposure to liability.

That threshold, said Neal, makes it virtually impossible to sue a teacher or principal. But he said a conversation with a laboratory safety expert who specializes in school fires alerted him to the National Fire Protection Association safety standards—standards that had been incorporated into Georgia’s fire safety code and adopted by Douglas County ordinance.

“That means they’re law; they’re mandatory,” Neal said.

In September, the lawyers, along with ChancoSchiffer partner Douglas Chanco, filed a suit in Douglas County Superior Court on Johnson’s behalf, naming Mathieson and Chapel Hill Principal Sean Kelly as defendants. The suit said the defendants had violated several “ministerial, mandatory, and non-discretionary Douglas County and state of Georgia fire codes, laws and regulations” by conducting the rainbow experiment in a school hallway not separated from the building by a fire barrier, improperly storing and handling the methanol, failing to safeguard against the exposure of hazardous materials and fumes to flame and ignoring a red-lettered sign on the chemical cabinet where the methanol was stored saying “KEEP FIRE AWAY,” among other assertions. …

The settlement was split between three insurers: the one representing the school system, as well as professional liability policies carried by Mathieson and Kelly, Neal said.

If you’re an educator now wondering whether you need professional liability insurance: I’d consult a lawyer to answer that question. ACS offers a policy if you’re interested. Here’s an ACS Comment about the policy and how it was developed.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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2 Comments

  1. I concur w/ JK’s advice and go further on Educator liability insurance. My opinion is that no science teacher can afford not to have this inexpensive and comprehensive coverage. contact http://www.acs.org/insurance to get details.

    WRT this settlement – large payouts to injured students will ultimately force school system risk managers to totally stop demonstrations/experiments with flammable liquids. This is unfortunate as it treats the symptom, without applying a cure. The cure is higher levels of training for science teachers which includes intense content on demonstration/experiment safety. Until that happens, the mayhem will continue.

  2. And the editorials just keep writing themselves…