2015-12-16 / Front Page

County, state settle allergy death suit, to pay $660K

Judge tells family of girl who died: ‘I can’t even imagine’
By Jim McConnell

The estate of a late Chesterfield girl will receive more than $660,000 as a result of the settlement of her mother’s lawsuit against a county employee and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Prior to approving the settlement last Friday, Chesterfield Circuit Court Judge Lynn S. Brice expressed sympathy to the parents of Amarria Johnson, a 7-year-old Hopkins Elementary student who died of a severe allergic reaction in January 2012 after eating a peanut given to her by a fellow student.

“I’m so sorry you lost your child … I can’t even imagine,” Brice said.

Under terms of the settlement, codefendant Tanya Fleetwood agreed to pay Johnson’s estate $612,500. The state also will pay $50,000. Fleetwood’s portion of the settlement will be paid out of the county’s Risk Management Fund.

Attorney Mark Krudys, who represented Johnson’s mother, Laura Pendleton, declined comment on her behalf following the hearing.

Johnson’s father, Maurice Johnson, also opted not to comment on the settlement.

Pendleton’s $10 million wrongful-death suit, filed in 2013, alleged that her daughter died as a “direct and proximate result” of the negligent actions of Fleetwood and Jackqueline Hughes.

At the time of Johnson’s death, Fleetwood worked as a clinic assistant at Hopkins Elementary, where Johnson was a first grade student.

Hughes was employed as a nurse with the Chesterfield Health Department and oversaw student health care at multiple county schools, including Hopkins Elementary.

Hughes, who was not working at Hopkins on the day Johnson died, subsequently was dismissed from the suit.

Court documents show that on Jan. 2, 2012, Johnson ate a peanut given to her by another student during recess. She immediately informed her teacher, who took her to the school clinic.

Johnson, who was allergic to nuts, eggs and chocolate, reported feeling “bumps” in her throat and scratching in her neck. But the school didn’t have an EpiPen, a portable device used for treating anaphylaxis, for her on site.

Fleetwood attempted to contact Pendleton, then administered a nebulizer treatment prescribed for Johnson’s asthma. After Johnson stopped breathing, Fleetwood administered CPR and called 911.

A police officer with a portable defibrillator responded to the school, but was unable to revive Johnson. Paramedics arrived and transported her to Chippenham Hospital where she was pronounced dead. The official causes of death were anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest.

Nearly a month before her daughter’s death, Pendleton’s lawsuit claimed she attempted to provide the school with an EpiPen for her daughter. After Hughes contacted Pendleton, she visited the school on Dec. 8, 2011, to provide an updated Confidential Standard Health/Emergency Plan on file for Johnson.

During that visit, Pendleton’s suit alleged, she attempted to give Fleetwood an EpiPen for Johnson’s food allergies, but Fleetwood declined to accept the EpiPen, telling Pendleton that the school “had what it needed to care for Amarria” and suggesting that Pendleton take the EpiPen home.

At that point, Pendleton noted in the lawsuit, she “reasonably concluded” that the clinic at Hopkins Elementary maintained a common supply of medications – including EpiPens – for student use.

But no such medication supply existed. Prior to Johnson’s death, Virginia’s public school systems weren’t required to supply EpiPens for use at individual schools. (It became a requirement after former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed “Amarria’s Law” in April 2012.)

Both Fleetwood and Hughes denied any wrongdoing in connection with Johnson’s death.

Fleetwood, who was represented by the county attorney’s office, contended that Pendleton “was herself guilty of negligent conduct which proximately caused the death of her daughter.”

Fleetwood denied telling Pendleton that Hopkins Elementary had EpiPens available for Johnson’s use. Fleetwood also alleged that, despite being advised on multiple occasions of school policy requiring parents to provide their children’s medications, Pendleton failed to supply an EpiPen for her daughter.

Unable to reach a resolution on their own, attorneys for the plaintiff and defendants entered mediation earlier this year with Michael Allen, a retired Circuit Court judge and past president of the Chesterfield County Bar Association.

Krudys notified Chesterfield Circuit Court in late August that settlements had been reached in both the wrongful-death lawsuit and a $1.35 million defamation suit Pendleton had filed against six current and former county and state officials.

Virginia law requires a Circuit Court judge to approve all settlements of wrongful-death claims.

Deputy County Attorney Stylian Parthemos told Brice during Friday’s hearing that the mediation process “worked as intended, and the settlement reached is reflective of that.”

The Observer is still attempting to obtain financial details about the settlement of the defamation lawsuit, which was sealed by order of a Richmond Circuit Court judge.

The suit alleged that a group of local school officials, including Superintendent Marcus Newsome, participated in a concerted effort to deflect blame for Johnson’s death and create the false impression that Pendleton herself was responsible.

Midlothian District Supervisor Dan Gecker said in October that he believes “the dollar amount of any settlement with a public body, including Chesterfield County, should be made public.”

“I don’t think a court should seal the terms of the settlement unless there is a compelling reason to do so,” Gecker said.

Susan Pollard, director of communications and media for the county, said that the confidentiality agreement was entered “at the request of all parties to the case.”

The Observer has filed three separate requests for the settlement amount under the Freedom of Information Act. The most recent request was still pending by press time Monday.

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