Federal Way Public Schools will pay $5.25 million to the family of a high school student who died from sudden cardiac arrest suffered at a summer football practice in 2018.
Allen Harris, a 16-year-old sophomore, was participating in a conditioning practice on an "exceptionally hot" July 24 afternoon when he collapsed and suffered a seizure after completing several sets of wind sprints. Three coaches at the scene failed to recognize the sudden cardiac arrest symptoms, according to a lawsuit filed by his family, and didn't resuscitate him or retrieve an automated external defibrillator inside the gym office just a few yards away.
"The coaches believed Allen was simply having a seizure and had another player pour water on his head," according to court documents and a statement issued by the family's attorneys at Connelly Law Offices.
Whitney Chiang, a spokesperson for the Federal Way school district, said in a statement that Harris' death "was felt across Federal Way Public Schools, and those who knew him continue to feel this loss."
"We know our coaches did their best in a very difficult situation," she said, adding that the district's risk managers negotiated the settlement during mediation.
"Our hearts go out to those who continue to grieve the loss of this bright young man," Chiang said.
Harris fell to the ground while taking a break after finishing two sets of the sprints alongside other students. According to the National Weather Service, the high temperature on that day was 81 degrees, with humidity at 36%.
Head coach Carl Green, along with assistant coaches Jared Wren and Elijah Miller, were overseeing the workout. According to court documents and sworn depositions, Green ran over to Harris and saw he was "unresponsive with his eyes back and seizing." Miller called 911.
The lawsuit alleges more than 10 minutes passed before EMTs arrived and began attempts to resuscitate the unconscious boy. Two more minutes elapsed before the medics were able to try to shock his heart to restore a heartbeat, the lawsuit claims. Harris later died at St. Francis Hospital.
His family sued the Federal Way school district in 2019. According to family attorney Micah LeBank, discovery in the case revealed the coaches hadn't been properly trained to identify or respond to sudden cardiac arrest, which the lawsuit claims is a "well recognized medical emergency that high school programs are required to be prepared for."
Court documents quote findings from a National Athletic Trainers' Association task force, established in 2006, that recognized sudden cardiac arrest as a significant issue within high school sports and established protocols for coaches and trainers whose players are stricken.
The group found the "single greatest factor affecting survival after out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is the time interval from arrest to defibrillation," through the use of an automated external defibrillator, a device that can be used by a layperson to identify life-threatening heart rhythms and administer a shock to restart the heart to a normal rhythm.
The lawsuit said an AED in the Federal Way High School gym could have been retrieved in "15 to 20 seconds," according to court pleadings.
Federal Way High School had hired an outside provider to prepare an emergency action plan for sudden cardiac arrest but had not provided that plan to the coaches, according to court pleadings.
LeBank said the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association instructs coaches that if an athlete collapses for no apparent reason and is unresponsive, they should assume the cause is sudden cardiac arrest, immediately start CPR and deploy an AED.
The Federal Way coaches were not familiar with that training and mistook Harris' sudden cardiac arrest for a seizure, according to the lawsuit. The district appealed the litigation to Division I of the Court of Appeals, which sided with the Harris family and ruled the district owed a duty to students to prepare for medical emergencies.
The lawsuit showed that some sworn statements contradicted 911 recordings and EMT reports. In pleadings, the district and Green, the head coach, had said Harris was initially "conscious and responsive," but Miller, an assistant coach, told the 911 operator Harris was unresponsive, unconscious and seizing. When EMTs arrived, Harris was unconscious and had no pulse, according to the pleadings.
Harris is survived by his parents, Rod and Dee Harris.
"The Harris family hopes that this settlement will encourage school districts to train their coaches to identify and respond to Sudden Cardiac Arrest and hope that Allen's legacy can save the lives of other students and student athletes," the family said in a statement.