By Ethan Fry, CT Post, DERBY, CT (February 20, 2019) — The judge overseeing the lawsuit filed by the mother of slain Milford high school student Maren Sanchez won’t be reversing a prior decision in which he declined to throw the case out of court.
Last month, the city asked Judge Barry Stevens to reconsider his decision denying its motion for summary judgment in the case, in light of a recently decided state Supreme Court case.
But from the outset during a 15-minute hearing Tuesday in Superior Court, the judge made it clear to the city’s lawyer, James Tallberg, that he probably wasn’t going to find the argument compelling.
“I really don’t understand your motion at all,” the judge told Tallberg at the beginning of the hearing.
Sanchez was stabbed to death by classmate Christopher Plaskon in April 2014 at Jonathan Law High School after she rebuffed his invitation to the prom.
The lawsuit says that in November 2013, Sanchez reported to the high school guidance department that Plaskon was emotionally disturbed and threatening to commit suicide or acts of serious self-harm with a knife, and she believed it was important for high school personnel to prevent him from engaging in potentially violent conduct.
The lawsuit says school officials should have prevented Sanchez’s death.
In a memo filed with the court, Tallberg had argued that a Supreme Court decision in the case of Ventura v. East Haven meant the judge should take a new look at a decision in which he had declined to throw out the lawsuit.
But the judge didn’t buy that argument.
“Ventura is entirely inapplicable,” the judge said Tuesday.
In that case, an East Haven cop investigating a possible domestic violence incident in a vehicle couldn’t verify the owner of the car had a valid driver’s license, but declined to order it towed and instead drove the man home.
The owner then returned to his vehicle and drove it away, after which he got into an accident with another man who sued the town for damages. A jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff, but the appeals court decided the case should have been thrown out because the officer wasn’t obligated to order the man’s car towed.
The Sanchez case centers on whether school officials had discretion in responding to Sanchez’s warning within the school district’s Suicide Prevention and Intervention Procedure, and whether more of an intervention would have prevented the killing.
State law shields municipalities from liability if employees are negligent in performing discretionary acts, but not necessarily for negligence in the performance of mandatory acts.
The discretionary/mandatory contrast was the subject of much of Tuesday’s hearing. Tallberg contested a footnote in the judge’s prior ruling indicating the city had “withdrawn” its claims that school officials acted with discretion in the case.
“I didn’t mean to abandon those, I don’t think I did, and I want to preserve those rights,” Tallberg said.
The judge replied that the city could still claim school officials had discretion — but that it didn’t while arguing in favor of its motion for summary judgment.
“Nobody said you’ve abandoned anything, except for purposes of the motion,” the judge said. “That doesn’t take it out of the case. It just takes out of the court’s purview as part of the motion.”
The judge said the Ventura case cited by the city simply affirmed an Appellate Court decision that was available to him while considering the city’s prior request to have the case thrown out, and “doesn’t implicate any of the issues raised here.”
Afterward, David Golub, the lawyer representing Sanchez’s mother, agreed with the judge.
“The judge has indicated that he’s not changing his decision, and that’s the right answer,” Golub said.
Tallberg said he’ll do his talking in the courtroom.
“We’re going to address the issues in the court at the appropriate juncture,” he said.
The two sides had been in settlement discussions before the city asked the judge to have the lawsuit thrown out of court.
A trial in the case is tentatively scheduled for May 2020.