Schools in Howard seek county liability in suit over injury

In an unusual legal ploy, the Howard County school system is trying to make the county government pay any damages that may result from a $2 million suit filed on behalf of a girl who lost her eye during an accident at a recreation program in a school gymnasium.

The move by the Board of Education, which county attorneys admit caught them by surprise, involves a civil suit filed against the school system and a manufacturer of gym equipment after a Feb. 6, 1988, accident at West Friendship Elementary.


The suit, filed by Leland R. Cheyne of Ellicott City, alleges that his 4-year-old daughter, Tiffany, lost her eye when she fell into a protruding bracket on a piece of gym equipment while he was coaching a youth basketball game.

Mr. Cheyne's suit argues that brackets on the folding equipment were improperly assembled, with the sharp edge of the bracket protruding outward.


The question of who should be responsible for any damages went before Howard County Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. yesterday. The county asked him to dismiss the Board of Education's request, and he took the issue under advisement.

Initially, the county government was named as a defendant in the civil suit. But in a June 30, 1989, ruling, Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. removed the county as a defendant in the case.

At the time, there was no opposition from the Board of Education or the girl's lawyer. But J. Michael Sloneker, the school board's lawyer, subsequently filed a "third party complaint," trying to bring the county government back into the case.

He argued that the Department of Recreation and Parks had signed an agreement with the school board to cover any injuries involving the use of the gym by a youth association that operated a basketball league at West Friendship Elementary School.

Mr. Sloneker argued that the parks department "negligently and carelessly supervised the basketball program and the spectators attending it, [and] failed to stop [the child] from entering areas where it knew or should have known that she could be injured."

Richard E. Basehoar, an assistant county solicitor, argued for the dismissal of the Board of Education's claim, saying that "there is no indication that the county is . . . negligent or responsible for the child's injuries."