In what lawyers are calling the largest bullying settlement in U.S. history, a California school district has agreed to a $27 million payment to the legal guardians of a 13-year-old boy who died after being attacked at his school.
Diego Stolz was a student at Landmark Middle School in Moreno Valley, California, when on September 16, 2019, he unexpectedly received a punch in the head from two of his male classmates, as stated in the lawsuit. Stolz fell and his head struck a concrete pillar, resulting in severe brain injury. The tragic incident was documented in a disturbing video by an onlooker. Stolz never regained consciousness and passed away nine days later.
The wrongful death lawsuit, submitted in 2020, stated that the school administration had been given prior warnings about Stolz being a target of bullying. Nonetheless, they “chose to overlook these warnings and did nothing to halt the bullying.” The lawsuit further accuses Moreno Valley Unified School District and its employees of “negligently disregarding alarming signs that could have saved Stolz’s life.”
A notice of the settlement was announced by the family’s law firm on Thursday, almost four years after the heartbreaking incident that led to Stolz’s death. Dave Ring, the lead attorney, articulated the family’s hope that this case would instigate change in school districts nationwide. He emphasized that bullying must never be tolerated, and reports of bullying and assault needed to be dealt with utmost urgency. He added that Stolz’s death could have been avoided if the school had merely adopted an effective anti-bullying policy.
In reflecting on the case, attorney Neil Gehlawat spoke of it as a wake-up call for schools to devise strategies for combating bullying and to implement genuine anti-bullying policies. Although nothing can assuage their grief, he expressed hope that real change would transpire with increased attention paid to anti-bullying programs throughout the country.
Michael Marlatt, the school district’s lawyer, expressed that his client deemed the settlement to be “fair and reasonable.” Accepting the tragic nature of the case and complex legal issues, Marlatt admitted that given the facts and recent trend of jury verdicts, the settlement amount of $27 million was appropriate.
Following the settlement, Moreno Valley Unified School District Superintendent Martinrex Kedziora sent a message to families and staff outlining some of the anti-bullying work undertaken in recent years. He assured in his letter that the safety and well-being of their students would continue to be their highest priority.
The two teenagers involved in the brutal incident pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and spent 47 days in juvenile detention. In 2021, they were sentenced to probation and returned to parental custody.
The lawsuit records that Stolz was “constantly bullied, both verbally and physically,” by other boys, including the two identified as J.D. and M.E., during his seventh grade despite the family’s complaints to the school administration. It further alleges that the school administration’s inaction continued even after Stolz reported a bullying incident to a science teacher.
According to the lawsuit, despite assurances from the assistant principal that the bullies would be suspended and their schedules changed, Stolz found the same boys in school when he returned. No action had been taken. This resulted in another confrontation, with the two boys attacking Stolz, leading to his fatal injury.
Following Stolz’s death, the principal and two assistant principals were removed from their positions at the middle school. With this outcome of the lawsuit, the case remains a stark reminder of the seriousness and potential consequences of bullying in schools.