$10 million verdict when wheelchair harness strangles disabled boy on school bus. Orange County.


School bus driver improperly secures disabled child into wheelchair on bus; shoulder harness strangles the boy who suffered from Angelman Syndrome and could not move or cry out for help.

Defendant, before admitting liability and causation on eve of trial, had sought an offset of $3.7 million based on the future medical cost plaintiff parents would not incur owing to their child's early death. 

The Case

  • Case Name: Cisler v. Capistrano Unified School District
  • Court and Case Number: Orange County Superior/ 30-2011-00498422
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Friday, December 07, 2012
  • Date Action was Filed: Tuesday, August 09, 2011
  • Type of Case: Wrongful Death
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Geoffrey Glass
  • Plaintiffs:
    Melissa and Daniel Cisler, parents of decedent child
  • Defendants:
    Capistrano Unified School District

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $10,000,000
  • Non-Economic Damages:

    $2,000,000 to each parent for past non-economic damages

    $3,000,000 to each parent for future non-economic damages

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 2 days
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 1 1/2 days
  • Jury Polls: 12-0

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:
    Panish Shea & Boyle LLP by Brian J. Panish, Thomas A. Schultz, and Erika Contreras, Los Angeles
  • Attorney for the Defendant:
    Woodruff Spradlin & Smart by Daniel Spradlin, Costa Mesa

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Kevin Cisler, age 3 and a special-needs/disabled child, died during a school-bus ride home in a Capistrano Unified School District bus. Kevin was strapped into his wheelchair by the bus driver.  He died while in the bus. 

    Plaintiffs' decedent was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome when he was one-year old and was receiving early intervention through the Capistrano Unified School District. At the time of his death, Kevin was not mobile and not verbal.

    Kevin was plaintiffs' only child at the time of his death.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    That negligence by defendant school district caused the wrongful death of plaintiffs' three-year-old son.

    That after being improperly strapped into his wheelchair, he was left unsupervised and unmonitored by defendant's employee, a bus driver, for over 40 minutes. The Orange County coroner concluded that Kevin died as a result of positional asphyxiation, by which he literally hung to death on his wheelchair chest harness.

    Plaintiffs Melissa and Daniel Cisler brought a wrongful death claim against the Capistrano Unified School District.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    Defendant school district denied liability and causation for approximately 18 months. Defendant contended until the eve of trial that Kevin Cisler's pre-existing disability caused his death.

    At trial, defendant admitted liability and causation, arguing only damages.




Injuries and Other Damages

  • Loss of love, comfort, affection, society and moral support of plaintiffs' three-year-old son.

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff §998 Demand: $7,000,000
  • Defendant §998 Offer: $1,000,000
  • Defendant Final Offer before Trial: $1,500,000

Additional Notes

Per plaintiff counsel:

Only after depositions that uncovered gross negligence did defendant admit liability and causation.

Before admitting liability and causation, defendant retained seven experts to contest plaintiffs' claimed non-economic damages. Defendant made two primary assertions.

First, they sought a $3.7 million dollar offset against plaintiffs' non-economic damages for the future cost of Kevin's medical care which, the defendant claimed, the parents were saved from as a result of defendant's negligence.

Additionally, a psychiatric expert was hired to opine that the plaintiff parents' lingering emotional issues were really unresolved feelings of conflict over his pre-existing disability.

Ultimately, after each of the defendant's seven experts were deposed, defendants chose not to present these arguments and witnesses at trial.