Family of disabled La Puente boy who died after fall at school settles suit for $18 million

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Family and friends of Moises Murillo gather at Oakdale Memorial Park for his burial service on Thursday, June 15.
Family and friends of Moises Murillo gather at Oakdale Memorial Park for his burial service on June 15, 2017. (Hannah Collins / Los Angeles Times)

The family of an 8-year-old La Puente boy with Down syndrome who died in 2017 after falling off a chair at school and severing his spinal cord has reached an $18-million settlement with the district, the family's attorney said Wednesday.

Because of his disability, Moises Murillo could not walk, talk or sit up straight and was supposed to be seated in an adaptive stroller, said Steve Vartazarian, the family's attorney.

On May 31, 2017, a teacher at Sunset Elementary School who was not familiar with Moises' individualized education program, or IEP, couldn't fit the stroller at a desk, Vartazarian said. An IEP outlines the yearly plan for each student with disabilities, including any specialized equipment they must use in the classroom.

The teacher took Moises out of the stroller and strapped him into a chair using a gait belt, Vartazarian said. Soon, the teacher and other classroom staff had their attention turned elsewhere.

Left unsupervised, Moises pushed against the desk and tipped backward, the attorney said. The boy's head struck the concrete floor, and a piece of vertebra severed his spinal cord in his neck, cutting off the brain's signals to his vital organs.

Moises stopped breathing and was taken to Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina before he was transferred to Children's Health of Orange County, where he was kept on life support for four days until it was apparent that he would not recover, Vartazarian said. He died on June 4, 2017.

The settlement agreement with the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District was reached June 22, Vartazarian said. The settlement document was not made public by Los Angeles County Superior Court, but Vartazarian was able to confirm key details, including the amount of compensation, to The Times.

The district admitted no wrongdoing, a common stipulation in such settlements, the attorney said.

A school district spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vartazarian said the case was "hard fought for many, many years" prior to the settlement.

The school district "blamed everyone under the sun other than themselves," he said. "They denied everything."

The lawsuit, which was filed in January 2018, was set to go to trial June 30, but attorneys for the district contacted Vartazarian the week before with a settlement offer.

After the agreement was accepted and signed, the case was officially dismissed Aug. 6, he said.

"Things like this should never happen," Vartazarian said. "This case was about the IEP. Every special needs child who attends school is entitled to an IEP."

In the case of Moises' death, school staff failed to follow the plan, the attorney said. If there were questions about his equipment and whether it was proper to remove him from the adaptive stroller, staff members could have contacted his parents, the principal or several other contacts that would have been listed on the document.

"In this case, they didn't do that," Vartazarian said.

The boy's parents spoke at a news conference Wednesday morning and said no amount of money will bring back their son.

"He was a very loved child," Vartazarian said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.