Bigfork School District up Against Tough Case

By Beacon Staff

The lawsuit filed by the parents of Jeffrey Bowman on Aug. 13, says Bigfork High School officials’ negligence and win-at-all-costs attitude killed their son.

Bowman, 17, collapsed while running timed laps on the first day of football practice last year and died a week later at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. According to his parents’ lawsuit, he suffered several injuries in his collapse, including cardiac arrest and brain damage from oxygen deprivation.

“Bigfork High blatantly violated our legal and sacred right to decide what’s best for our child,” Bob and Theresa “Troy” Bowman said in a written statement released last Wednesday, the anniversary of their son’s death.

“Winning football games was more important to them than our parental rights. Winning football games was more important to them than following the rules. Above all, winning football games was more important to them than the safety of the children.”

The Bowmans filed a lawsuit against Bigfork School District 38, its head football coach Bruce Corbett and former activities director Shannon Smith in Missoula’s U.S. District Court two weeks ago – exactly one year after their son’s collapse.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of allowing Bowman to practice without a permission slip signed by his parents and without a required physical exam. It also contends the school district and its employees failed to provide prompt and effective medical treatment and practiced in dangerous conditions – namely, in heat and air filled with smoke from area wildfires.

Following Bowman’s death, the school district hired Elizabeth Kaleva, a Missoula attorney who specializes in school law, to investigate the circumstances surrounding Bowman’s collapse. In her report, Kaleva determined the response of the coaches on the field was “appropriate under the circumstances.”

Upon its release, the Bowmans called the report “a biased, misleading and incomplete charade” and “an insult to our late son, his family and the community.”

Their lawsuit alleges that the first member of the football coaching staff to reach Bowman “yelled at Jeffrey to get up and get going” while grabbing him by the shirt. The second coach who arrived, it says, “reached down, grabbed the inside of the waistline of Jeffrey’s pants, lifted him off the ground, then dropped him onto the ground.”

According to the Bowmans’ attorney, the account of the events following Jeffrey Bowman’s collapse comes from a parent who was observing practice that day.

“Top doctors have told us that the records we gave Bigfork High show that it was the football practice that caused Jeff to collapse, and that Jeff would have been saved by the use of the school’s defibrillator,” the Bowman’s statement said.

The school’s defibrillator was not on the field the night Bowman collapsed.

Superintendent Russ Kinzer declined to comment on the lawsuit. He did confirm that no employees were disciplined or fired as a result of Bowman’s death. Corbett will return as head football coach this year, while Smith has since taken a teaching position at Glacier High School in Kalispell where he is also an assistant football coach.

What Bigfork’s up against
The Bowmans, who lived in Bigfork for a short time before Jeffrey’s death and have since moved back to the Denver area, are represented by high-profile attorney Dan Caplis.

For the past 23 years, Caplis has been litigating catastrophic injury cases. A founding partner of his law firm, Caplis has served as counsel in numerous cases which have resulted in seven-figure settlements, and is frequently called on to handle high-profile cases, including drunken driving accidents and medical negligence lawsuits.

Caplis is also a popular legal analyst who has been quoted in, among other publications, the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. He’s a regular guest on national interview shows such as Larry King Live and The O’Reilly Factor, and is the co-host of Denver’s popular talk radio show, 630 KHOW’s Caplis & Silverman Show.

The school district faces a lengthy list of possible damages. The lawsuit asks the Bowmans be compensated for medical expenses, funeral and burial expenses, emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of earnings, Jeff’s reasonable earnings during his life expectancy, loss of care and comfort, pain and suffering experienced by Jeff from the time he collapsed until his death a week later and other damages.

“We know that some will think we want to profit off our son’s death,” the Bowmans’ statement said. “That is the furthest thing from the truth. We would give up all we have to spend just another moment with Jeff.”

“But we are willing to put up with some people thinking bad things about us if it will help protect other kids,” they added. “And we know now that in the real world there are bad people out there who will jeopardize the lives of children to win games. A big verdict in this case will send a loud and clear message which will help protect a lot of kids.”

The school district will be represented by Missoula-based attorney Charles McNeil of Garlington, Lohn & Robinson. A partner in the firm, McNeil’s primary areas of practice include general negligence, insurance defense and coverage, bad faith, Native American law, employer liability, and workers compensation.

McNeil did not immediately return request for comment, and information about the extent of the school’s insurance coverage was not available.

Death on the gridiron

Jeffrey Bowman was one of 13 football athletes to die during the 2007 season.

Frederick O. Mueller is the author of the Annual Survey of Football Injuries, a long-running compilation of statistics that tracks major injuries and deaths in 1.8 million football players on middle school, high school, college, sandlot and professional teams. The report is produced by the University of North Carolina-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, of which Mueller is director.

Of the 13 football fatalities last year, Mueller said four were “direct fatalities,” which are defined as fatalities resulting directly from participation in the fundamental skills of football, such as tackling and blocking. The remaining nine were “indirect,” or caused by exertion or other health complications while participating in football activity.

Along with 2003, last year was the only time since 1999 that the total number of indirect fatal injuries has been in the single figures.

Of the indirect deaths, six – including Bowman – were high school players, one was a college athlete, one was a sandlot player, and one semi-professional. For four of those athletes, like Bowman, the cause of death was heart related.

“There have been a number of heart-related deaths over the years,” Mueller said. “The number of direct injuries came down drastically after rule changes a few years ago, so now we generally see more indirect than direct.”

According to the report, the number of indirect heart-related deaths has increased over the years and it is recommended that schools have automated external defibrillators (AED) available for emergency situations.

“That, along with a good physical, is very important,” Mueller said.

A school moves on

As the question over who, if anyone, is responsible for Jeffrey Bowman’s death makes its trip to the courts, Bigfork High School athletes gathered last week to begin another season – this time under new eligibility requirements aimed at helping eliminate confusion and possible oversight concerning student eligibility for activities and athletics.

The plan includes new paperwork policies and mandatory parent meetings to ensure that both students and their parents are aware of procedures and requirements.

Forms documenting athletic physicals, parent permission forms and activity fees are only accepted by school officials in the main office. Coaches are required to take roll at the start of practice and have a list of students who have turned in their forms and physical. And school officials will perform spot checks through the first few practices.

Revisions to the plan were in progress before Bowman’s death, but according to Kinzer, some changes stem from the incident.

After a winless season, nearly 45 students showed up for the first day of football practice this year – nearly double the number that tried out last year. The team will play its first game Sept. 5 in Hamilton.

“We’re hoping for a safe and fun season,” Kinzer said.

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