Hot Docs: Teacher spiked student’s drink with hot sauce, lawsuit claims

December 15, 2011

Scold SpiceAs most lawyers will tell you, there are some truly strange and disturbing cases out there.

This lawsuit is one of them.

According to the complaint, the defendant Syvia Tagle, a teacher, took an open can of soda, and under the table in the student lunch area, intentionally poured hot sauce into the soda can.

She then put the can above the table, cleaned off any excess hot sauce, and she placed the hot sauce laced soda can in front of Drake Serralta (the plaintiff and son of the attorney filing the lawsuit), believing that he would grab the can and drink from it.

He did, and, after ingesting the hot sauce, he became visibly upset.

The complaint goes on to describe Drake crying and jumping up and down in agony, eventually throwing up the soda and continuing to exhibit signs of being harmed by the experience.

By the way, Drake is autistic.

You outraged parents are perhaps wondering why criminal charges haven’t been brought against this teacher.

They were, actually, and the former teacher was convicted of child abuse and sentenced to 200 hours of community service and 2 years’ probation (instead of the maximum penalty of five years in prison).

Apparently, Drake’s father Mario Serralta did not believe that Tagle was punished enough (actually he’s quoted as saying as much after Tagle’s sentencing), which may be part of the reason for this lawsuit.

Hot Doc: Serralta v. Tagle

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

There are a couple of issues here, though.

First, there will probably be some dispute over the facts, since Tagle claimed as part of her criminal defense that she just likes hot sauce in her soda, and that she didn’t know that Drake would take the soda off of her desk and drink it.

Considering, though, that the Florida Criminal Punishment Code’s definition of child abuse cannot be construed to criminalize Tagle’s behavior under her version of the facts, it is highly unlikely that her story will survive long in this civil case.

Why?

Criminal convictions require an evidentiary showing of beyond a reasonable doubt – the highest such standard and one never required in civil suits.

Given that Tagle was convicted by a jury of third-degree child abuse, it’s doubtful that her story would fare any better in the civil realm of lower evidentiary standards.

There is the matter, of course, of reconciling the criminal elements of child abuse under which Tagle was convicted with the civil causes of action that Serralta is bringing now.

Those actually bring up the next issue.

Specifically, the complaint claims that both Tagle and the Miami-Dade County School Board violated Drake’s civil rights by failing to keep him free from cruel and unusual punishment pursuant to the Eighth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act.

Even I knew offhand that the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment applies to prisoners convicted of crimes, not students in school (I did have to look up the Supreme Court case, though: 1977’s Ingraham v. Wright), so that claim is not going to get Serralta anywhere.

Fortunately for Serralta, though, there are plenty of other legally sound claims included in the complaint, with one glaring exception.

Although Serralta included some claims against the School Board, there’s absolutely no mention of respondeat superior (employer liability) whatsoever.

If I were Serralta, I would amend my complaint immediately to correct this, since the school board would be on the hook for the last three torts mentioned* in the complaint under that theory.

In any case, the school board and Tagle are likely to settle this as soon as possible to avoid any further bad publicity and because, frankly, their chances in court aren’t the best.

Although many have surely posited different approaches to avoid something like this happening again in the future, I would suggest sending your kids to school on the first day wearing a shirt that reads, “My parents are particularly litigious attorneys.”

*The last three claims are battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, if you’re curious.