ENCINITAS — The family of a 13-year-old boy badly burned on his face when a school science experiment done by his teacher exploded and set him on fire is suing the Encinitas Union School District for negligence and negligent supervision and training.
The lawsuit was filed in San Diego Superior Court Dec. 30.
Last June, Priest Rivera, then a sixth-grader at Capri Elementary School, suffered burns to his face, neck and chest when his teacher, Lori Feinberg, attempted a science experiment known as the “black snake” or “carbon snake.”
The experiment involves a mixture of baking soda, sugar, sand and alcohol that ignites to create a black, snake-like object rising from the mixture.
The lawsuit said Feinberg acted “recklessly” when she took sixth-grade students, including Priest, outside of the school building and performed a flammable experiment in windy weather. Students were not given specific safety instructions to follow or provided with any protective glasses or safety equipment, such as a fire blanket.
Additionally, the lawsuit states that the district and Feinberg did not provide parents any notice that “a dangerous experiment involving flames” was going to take place.
The lawsuit claims that when Feinberg lit the ingredients with a lighter, it did not ignite, so she added more alcohol to the mix.
“There was a loud pop and an explosion,” the lawsuit states. “A flame jet burst from the mixture, engulfing Priest in flames … With his face, hair, neck and clothing on fire, Priest began running in circles to try and put the fire out.”
The boy was rushed to the hospital and spent a week in UCSD’s burn unit, treating excruciating burns on his forehead, cheeks, neck, ears, chest and left eyelid.
Priest’s parents, Gina and Jason Rivera, said they got a call from the school after it happened and were told they needed to meet Priest at the hospital.
“Our reaction was that of shock and fear,” they said in an email signed by both of them Jan. 14. “As parents, it’s just very upsetting for this to happen and particularly at his school. We send off our kids to school thinking they will be safe and certainly believe that the officials and teachers will not put them in harm’s way.”
Priest has had to undergo multiple surgeries and his family recently learned he has to have another surgery.
The lawsuit alleges that the district and his teacher failed to maintain a safe environment for students and subjected Priest to “unreasonable risk.”
“Priest’s injuries were foreseeable,” the lawsuit reads. “Any school district and teacher conducting the black snake experiment for young children should have taken steps to ensure the students’ safety.”
The lawsuit doesn’t specify the amount of damages that are being sought but is seeking a jury trial to determine the amount to be paid.
The family also wants to raise awareness of this issue to help improve safety measures in schools.
“We’d like to see that Priest is provided all of the resources to cover all of his medical bills, has access to the top medical care, and, hopefully schools can learn from this and work to ensure no other children are unnecessarily harmed from dangerous demonstrations like this,” the Riveras’ email said.
The family’s lawyer, Dave Fox, said the family reached out to the district multiple times to try to reach a settlement but they never heard back, which prompted them to file the lawsuit. He said it’s disheartening that in the seven months since the accident neither the district nor the teacher have reached out to the Riveras to apologize or see how Priest is doing.
“Teachers and school districts usually are the ones that tell kids if you make a mistake and you hurt someone, you want to do everything you can immediately to make it right,” Fox said. “And I think it’s odd here that you’ve got a school district that obviously made a really reckless decision, and hurt someone, and it’s frustrating that they have not at this point said, ‘Hey, we feel deeply sorry, what can we do to make this right?’”
Fox said the family is seeking a trial date as soon as possible so that they can try and put this behind them and move forward as best they can.
“This has been incredibly painful and scary for Priest,” the Riveras’ email said. “His face was badly burned and he is haunted to this day of the incident.”
They say they are going to do everything they can to ensure Priest has the best chance of healing, both physically and mentally, from this “inexcusable” incident.
“He is a very sweet kid and is doing his best to keep a positive attitude through this very difficult ordeal,” they said.
The district has declined comment due to the pending litigation. It is not known if the teacher faced any disciplinary action. She is still listed as a science teacher at the school.
Priest has since moved school districts and is now in seventh grade.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Priest’s surgeries have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The exact cost of the surgeries is unknown at this time, according to Dave Fox, the family’s lawyer. The Coast News regrets the error.