A New York City jury has awarded almost $60 million to the family of a student who was severely injured in a failed rainbow flame demonstration in 2014.
“The message this [verdict] should send is safety first,” says lawyer Ben Rubinowitz, who represented student Alonzo Yanes and his family. “I hope that no child is ever injured again” by this experiment.
Yanes was a 16-year-old sophomore at Beacon High School, a public school in New York City, when his chemistry teacher, Anna Poole, successfully performed the procedure. Then she attempted to restart it by adding more methanol from a 1 gal container, which ignited. Yanes was standing 75 cm away and sustained burns to 30% of his body, including disfiguring scars to his face, ears, neck, arms, and hands, Rubinowitz says. Another student was also injured in the fire and settled with the city.
Just a month before the incident, the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board warned about the hazards of the rainbow experiment, which has caused dozens of accidents and injuries through the years. Poole “took a shortcut, and you can’t take shortcuts when it comes to safety,” Rubinowitz says. Poole, who had taught chemistry for several years, now works for the city’s department of education advising other teachers.
Other students have won lawsuits after being injured in rainbow experiment accidents, though award amounts have been much lower. The jury awarded Yanes almost $60 million to address pain and suffering both since the accident and into the future. Rubinowitz says Yanes, now 21, is in college.
Nick Paolucci, press secretary for the New York City Law Department, says that the safety of students is the department of education’s top priority, and that the experiment has been banned as a result of the accident. “While we respect the jury’s verdict, we are exploring our legal options to reduce the award to an amount that is consistent with awards that have been upheld by the courts in similar cases.”