LA Jury Awards $10 Million in Suit over School Parking Lot Crash

A Los Angeles jury has awarded $10.3 million to the family of a 6-year-old girl who was struck by a van and killed two years ago in an elementary school parking lot, determining the school district was largely responsible for the crash.

The family of Jordan Sandels filed the wrongful-death lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District, alleging the parking lot at Lanai Road Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley was not designed according to state-approved blueprints. The Superior Court jury on Tuesday agreed and determined the district had been told of possibly hazardous conditions in the parking lot prior to the Jan. 13, 2005, crash.

The girl’s father, Michael Sandels, called the verdict an “incredible victory” and said he planned to use the money to open a foundation to address safety issues at schools nationwide.

“The trial was the closing of that part of our life,” Sandels said. “Now starts the part of our life which is dedicated to doing things in her name.”

Jurors found the district was 80 percent at fault for the crash, while the van’s driver, Lauri Dowling, was 20 percent responsible. Jurors decided Dowling did not have to pay damages.

School district attorney Kevin Reed said Dowling was responsible for the first-grader’s death and called the judgment “among the largest we’ve ever suffered.”

“We think the district staff did everything they could have done to look out for an accident that could be foreseeable,” Reed said, adding the district would consider an appeal.

Calls placed to two telephone listings for Dowling rang unanswered.

According to court records, Dowling, a parent at the school, was backing the van out of a handicapped parking spot when she lost control of the vehicle and it reversed. Dowling, who suffers from a debilitating illness, had lost the use of her legs. Her vehicle was equipped with a hand-controlled acceleration and brake lever.

During trial, plaintiff’s attorney Mark J. Henderson argued the parking space should have been angled away from the sidewalk as designed in the school’s original blueprints. Instead, he said, the parking space was positioned such that Dowling had to reverse toward the sidewalk, where the girl was walking with her father.

The van jumped the sidewalk, struck the girl, veered into the street and crashed into a car.

Henderson also argued the school and the district knew the parking lot was dangerous because students and parents frequently crossed it on foot as cars pulled out from parking spaces.

Madeline Latham-Wilson, the school’s principal at the time, said in a deposition that parents had complained to her weekly about how chaotic and dangerous the parking lot was, and that she had alerted the district numerous times about the situation.