Moreno Valley Unified: Boy killed by bullies died due to own negligence

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By Beau Yarbrough

The bullying and death of a Moreno Valley middle school student was his own fault and the fault of his family, according to school district lawyers.

“Any injury or damage allegedly suffered by Plaintiffs occurred as a proximate result of negligence on their own part in that they failed to exercise ordinary care on his/her own behalf at the time and place alleged,” the Nov. 20 answer to a lawsuit filed by the family of Diego Stolz reads, in part.

In plain English, “they’re blaming Diego and blaming the family for him being killed,” said Manhattan Beach attorney David Ring, who represents Stolz’s family in the lawsuit.Sign up for The Localist, our daily email newsletter with handpicked stories relevant to where you live. Subscribe here.

Stolz, 13, was an eighth grader at Landmark Middle School. On Sept. 13, 2019, he and an older cousin reported a bullying incident to the school, according to family members. According to his family, Assistant Principal Kamilah O’Connor said the two boys bullying him would be suspended and wouldn’t be on campus the next school day.

But, they were there. They sucker-punched Stolz in an attack captured on video. His head struck a pillar and he dropped, unconscious. His two assailants continued hitting him and Stolz never regained consciousness. He died eight days later.

After the assault, the Moreno Valley Unified School District replaced Landmark’s administrators. The district also changed how bullying reports are handled and increased training for administrators.

The two boys have acknowledged their guilt and “made admissions” to involuntary manslaughter and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury — the juvenile court equivalent of pleading guilty. They are scheduled to be sentenced in February.

On Sept. 14, 2020, two days short of the one-year anniversary of the fatal assault, Stolz’s family sued Moreno Valley Unified. Their lawsuit alleges the district has allowed bullying to go on “unchecked” for decades at the school, citing the 1998 death of Jerod Schroeder, also at Landmark.

But according to the district’s legal team, what happened was Stolz’s fault, his family’s fault and the fault of the two boys who assaulted him. Moreno Valley Unified “exercised reasonable diligence” according to its response to the lawsuit. Stolz’s family “failed to take proper care and/or reduce or mitigate any damages” caused by how the district handled bullying, lawyers from the Los Angeles firm of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith argue.

The law office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith did not respond to a request for comment.

O’Connor’s attorneys made a similar argument in their Nov. 23 response to the lawsuit by Stolz’s family. According to their response, Stolz and his family “knew of the danger and risk incident to their activity, but nevertheless freely and voluntarily exposed themselves to all risks of harm and thus assumed all risk of harm incidental thereto.”

The district lawyers’ argument doesn’t mark a break from Moreno Valley Unified’s stated commitment to crack down on bullying, according to spokeswoman Anahi Velasco.

“The district remains committed to the safety of our students,” she wrote in an email. “I can assure you the district is not taking the position the family should have transferred Diego to another school site.”

Instead, she said, district lawyers are laying out all possible defenses in the case.

“Our legal counsel determines what is legally required to be included in the answer they filed on behalf of the district,” Velasco wrote. “They can be withdrawn later if appropriate under the facts learned during the course of the case.”

Ring disagrees.

“They have an ethical obligation to put forward legitimate defenses. It’s completely outrageous to advance illegitimate defenses,” he said. “To say that Diego is at fault or his family is at fault is simply outrageous. And for them to put that in a public filing, it’s disheartening and makes you angry.”

Ring doesn’t believe it will end up being a winning strategy.

“In some cases, the person who’s injured is somehow partially at fault, but that’s not this case,” he said. “There’s not a shred of evidence that he or his family brought about any of this.”

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