One of the candidates for an open City and Borough of Juneau Assembly seat previously sued the city and was subsequently awarded over a quarter million dollar settlement.
Meilani Schijvens, one of three to apply for the Assembly District 1 seat that will be vacated by Jesse Kiehl in January, was a part of a family that received a $275,000 settlement from the city in July.
CBJ settled out of court with Meilani and her husband, Sander Schijvens, after their son was injured playing soccer during a physical education class in September 2016. The injury caused the then-fourth grader to suffer a concussion and was permanently blinded in one eye, according to court documents.
Municipal Attorney Robert Palmer said it was a large settlement compared to anything in the recent years and that the city did not admit any liability or wrongdoing.
“It’s a tough case anytime a child is involved in a lawsuit,” said Palmer. “But the Assembly at the time thought that amount of money was a fair way to avoid the expense of a trial. Part of it’s a business decision.”
The Schijvens filed the lawsuit in January 2018 seeking compensation for damages, claiming that the physical education teacher “lacked sufficient knowledge and training to avoid a foreseeable and preventable injury,” court documents said.
Arguments for the family claimed that the school district was negligent because this indoor soccer scrimmage was “the wrong activity, in the wrong location, with the wrong equipment.” They were using an outdoor soccer ball indoors when the injury occurred.
The school district disagreed, saying there was no established standard of care requiring use of an “indoor” ball instead of an “outdoor” ball. They also argued that youth soccer programs in Alaska routinely play in school gyms and that “this accident could have just as easily occurred outside or inside with an ‘indoor’ ball,” according to court documents.
Both parties attempted to resolve the issue through supervised mediation prior to the filing of the complaint. These talks were not successful in resolving the matter, so the family filed a formal lawsuit.
“The Juneau School District admits no fault — there was no fault,” said Clay Keene, a Ketchikan based attorney who defended the city in the case to the press. “The decision to settle this matter was a business decision on the part of the district and the CBJ. The parties worked very hard to come to a fair resolution of an extremely emotional-type case.”
When asked Thursday to comment on whether the lawsuit will affect her candidacy, Schijvens declined to comment. Schijvens is a lifelong Juneau resident, and the founder and director of Rain Coast Data, a Southeast Alaska firm specializing in economic development, research, analysis and publications.
Two other candidates have applied for the soon-to-be-open Assembly seat: former Assembly member Kate Troll and Theresa Yvette Soutiere, a private practice attorney and former public defender for Alaska. Since Jesse Kiehl will vacate his seat in January to go work in the Alaska Senate, CBJ code requires that the candidate be selected by majority vote of the Assembly, rather than an election.
In the lawsuit, one of the defenses the school district’s attorney planned to use involved “discretionary function immunity,” which would relate to a teacher’s immunity from from situations where employees are carrying out governmental or regulatory duties. For instance, a physical education teacher who instructs students to play soccer, a game that is part of a curriculum adopted by the Juneau School District School Board and many curricula across the country.
While the case was pending, the Alaska Supreme Court issued a decision titled Lane v. City & Borough of Juneau, which substantially altered the way this immunity statute could be used.
“Presumably, the School District evaluated the costs of defense, the range of potential outcomes, the evolving Alaska Supreme Court precedent, and other factors important to it, and it was comfortable that the settlement was fair,” wrote the family’s attorney, Matthew Singer, in the petition for settlement.
Holland & Knight, the attorneys for the Schijvens family, requested to keep the case sealed, but the court denied the request saying in the decision that it wasn’t necessary or appropriate under law as it would not pose risk to their son’s privacy rights and interests.
Meilani and Sander Schijvens agreed not to use the money for any past out-of-pocket medical expenses and that all of the money from the settlement would be used for a trust for their son to use in adulthood once he turns 18, according to the petition for settlement.
“[The] parents both felt strongly about finding a fair compromise with the District,” said Singer in the petition for settlement. “They wanted to see that their son received adequate recovery for his injury, but did not want to be punitive towards a school district that they care about and which is providing a good education to their children.”
• Contact reporter Mollie Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2228.