Lawyers spar over workers' compensation for Virginia teacher who was shot by 6-year-old

Abby Zwerner is suing Newport News Public Schools for $40 million, alleging gross negligence against school administrators, but the school board is trying to block the lawsuit, arguing her injuries fall under workers' compensation.

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Lawyers sparred in a Virginia courtroom Friday over whether a teacher who was shot by her 6-year-old student should get only workers' compensation for her serious injuries.

Abby Zwerner is suing Newport News Public Schools for $40 million, alleging gross negligence against school administrators. But the school board is trying to block the lawsuit, arguing that Zwerner’s injuries fall under workers' compensation.

The former first-grade teacher was hospitalized for nearly two weeks and endured multiple surgeries after a bullet struck her hand and chest. Workers' compensation would provide up to nearly 10 years' pay and lifetime medical benefits for physical and psychological injuries.

Zwerner attended Friday's hearing before a judge, her left arm still supported by a sling and her left hand wrapped in a thick, cloth bandage.

One of her attorneys, Kevin Biniazan, asked the judge to allow Zwerner's lawsuit to proceed to trial because “no first-grade teacher expects to be shot at work.”

“The particular danger of encountering a firearm is not in the nature of employment for a first-grade teacher,” Biniazan said.

But Anne Lahren, an attorney for the school board, said the incident “falls squarely” under workers' compensation because Zwerner was working in her capacity as a teacher. And Zwerner's lawsuit centers on allegations of negligence at her workplace, which also fall under the law, Lahren added.

Robert Samuel, another school board lawyer, said: “This doesn't mean that Ms. Zwerner doesn't get benefits and is left out in the cold.”

Matthew Hoffman, a circuit court judge in Newport News, said he'll rule on the matter in the next week. He'll have to decide whether Zwerner's allegations can move forward in court or if they belong before the workers' compensation commission.

After the hearing, Zwerner stood with her attorneys outside the courtroom. She declined to answer direct questions from a gaggle of reporters, her face holding back emotion.

“It's an overwhelming moment for her — I think we have to appreciate that,” Biniazan said. “It's all culminating in some ways on today. So, as much as Abby may have thoughts and comments, they're all swirling around in her head, probably faster than she can articulate them. So I hope you can excuse her in speaking through us.”

Zwerner was shot at Richneck Elementary School in early January by one of her students. She rushed the rest of the children out of the classroom before she collapsed in the school's office.

The former teacher says administrators ignored multiple warnings the boy had a gun that day and had routinely dismissed ongoing concerns about his troubling behavior. Legal experts say Zwerner's lawsuit faces an uphill battle under Virginia’s uncommonly strict workers' compensation law, which covers allegations of negligence.

Concerned teachers and employees at Richneck Elementary School warned administrators three times about a boy's troubling behavior before he shot a teacher, a lawyer for the teacher says.

Meanwhile, the mother of the 6-year-old boy who shot Zwerner is still awaiting sentencing for felony child neglect. Deja Taylor's sentencing was scheduled for Friday afternoon but postponed until December.

Court records indicate the delay comes at the request of both the defense and prosecutors, in part because a report was not yet available from the guardian ad litem. In Virginia, a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent the interests of the child in cases alleging neglect.

Taylor faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty, though prosecutors will recommend only a six-month sentence as part of a plea deal.

Taylor told police she believed her 9mm handgun was secured at home with a trigger lock. But authorities said they never found a lock during searches of the home.

Taylor's son told authorities he climbed onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the weapon was in her purse. He concealed the gun in his backpack and then his pocket before shooting his teacher in front of the class, prosecutors said.

Moments later, the 6-year-old told a reading specialist who restrained him, “I shot that (expletive) dead” and “I got my mom’s gun last night,” according to search warrants.

Taylor has pleaded guilty separately to using marijuana while owning a gun, which is illegal under U.S. law, and will be sentenced in federal court next month. A plea deal in that case calls for 18 to 24 months behind bars.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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