Scranton, PA (February 10, 2020) – Citing dangerous, historically high levels of carcinogenic asbestos and lead, attorneys for current and former Scranton School District (SSD) employees, including a school principal, reading specialist, and maintenance worker, today announced the first lawsuit on behalf of those exposed that face an uncertain health future.
The Federal lawsuit, filed by a legal team led by Saltz, Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, P.C. (SM&B), aims to urgently establish a fund to manage a specialized medical monitoring program, obtain class status for at-risk individuals, and damages.
Attorney Patrick Howard, of SM&B, said the Complaint alleges that the defendants were provided test results from environmental studies, starting in at least 2016, of the hazardous conditions, but decided “not to inform students, parents, and employees of the presence of asbestos and lead in unsafe levels until January 2020.” Mr. Howard and SM&B’s Lackawanna County co-counsel, Paul G. Batyko III, of Batyko Law, LLC, a South Scranton native and graduate of Scranton High School, said that besides SSD, the defendants include two current and 13 former School Board members. The lawsuit (O’Donnell et al. v. Scranton School District, et al., U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania 3:20-cv-00225-JMM) alleges the defendants knew or should have known that all but four of SSD’s18 school buildings posed serious health dangers, and yet failed to take protective measures for reasons known only to them.
The “courageous” lead plaintiffs in the case are William Prescott Elementary School Principal Albert P. O’Donnell, Rebecca M. O’Brien, Reading Specialist at Northeast Intermediate Middle School, and George Gevaras, who retired in 2017 after 16 years as a SSD maintenance worker On behalf of themselves and others, they are asking the Court to establish a special fund to oversee comprehensive medical surveillance for those who have suffered, or may suffer sickness, disease, possibly death, as a result of long term exposure to elevated levels of asbestos and lead in the “toxic” schools and related facilities (including the administration building, stadium, and maintenance buildings).
Mr. O’Donnell, said, “I’ve served as Principal of the 350-student Prescott Elementary for the past 16 years. In that role, I’ve been responsible for the health and safety of countless children who are entrusted to me by their families. When I learned that their future health could be jeopardized by the conduct of the District, I felt I had a duty to protect them and seek district-wide health monitoring for them.”
Even though it is alleged that the buildings’ issues were well known to the Scranton School Board for years (the first disclosures of environmental hazards in the SSD date to 1988), it was not until January 30, 2020 that Prescott, along with Northeast, where Ms. O’Brien has been a Reading Specialist, and two other elementary schools, were closed following the Board’s first public disclosure of dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water and toxic asbestos in the air, as well as interior building products, including ceiling tiles and insulation
Ms. O’Brien said, “I have been with the District 17 years, the last six in Northeast Intermediate, and I was shocked that my concerns- which I raised directly – about working conditions in the school went unaddressed. I personally notified District officials of the dust that covered desks and windowsills that had to be cleaned every few days. Since the disclosures about these hazards, I decided that it was important that someone stand up and do what’s right for children and the safety of my colleagues.” Northeast Intermediate was recently permanently closed and its students, faculty, and staff reassigned to other buildings in the district.
Mr. Gevaras, who retired after “16 wonderful years” working in various buildings throughout the SSD, said, “I’m scared. Now I find out that the paint and plaster, old flooring and insulation, I was told to remove – without being given a mask or eye protection – could make me very sick. I’m worried for me, my family and all the children.”
Attorney Howard, a partner in SM&B’s class-action/consumer protection, and a Scranton area native, said, “The plaintiffs are courageous, caring public employees who have asked our firm to do all we can to hold the defendants accountable for their complete failure to do their jobs as stewards of Scranton’s schools. When the children of Scranton needed them the most, the defendants turned their backs on them and ignored the reports of widespread environmental dangers. We will argue for class certification to give every individual exposed since 2016 to asbestos and lead in the District, the best chance at a healthy life by providing intensive, precision medical monitoring by highly qualified healthcare professionals.”
He noted that the plaintiffs are not being charged for legal representation, and that any attorney’s fees recovered would be paid by the defendants.
Robert J. Mongeluzzi, of SM&B, stated, “Sadly, Scranton is now mentioned in the same breath as Flint, Michigan and Philadelphia when it comes to preventable but foreseeable environmental catastrophes. Our Complaint includes a demand for a jury trial, and we look forward to bringing all the facts in this case to the light of day at trial. Those responsible for this public health disaster – in a school district with nearly 10,000 students and more than 1,100 teachers and support staff – must be held accountable to the full measure of the law.”
All the individual defendants served on the Board from 2016-2019, during which time it is asserted they learned from the SSD’s environmental engineering firm of the widespread presence of dangerous asbestos and lead.
According to the Complaint, “The District’s actions, inactions, and/or deliberate indifference in allowing the presence of asbestos and lead in unsafe levels within its Schools for an extended period of time, in failing to inform its students, parents, and employees of the presence of asbestos and lead in unsafe levels until January 2020, and in failing to begin to take any steps to rectify the asbestos and lead problems until January 2020, shocks the conscience.”
SM&B’s Simon B. Paris and Charles J. Kocher are also members of the legal team.
COVERAGE NOTE: All media inquiries regarding the filing/Complaint will be addressed by the legal team (contact information below). The plaintiffs will be conducting no press interviews at this time.
Robert J. Mongeluzzi / email@example.com / 215.575.2989
Patrick Howard / firstname.lastname@example.org / 215.575.3895
Paul G. Batyko III / email@example.com/ 570.510.2503
Steph Rosenfeld / Steph@idadadvisors.com / 215.514.4101