Budget committee to consider $1 million wrongful death award


LITTLE ROCK — The Joint Budget Committee will consider a subcommittee’s recommendation for a $1 million award in a wrongful death claim by the parents of a Bentonville boy who was killed when a soccer goal fell on him at school.

Nine-year-old Jonathan Nelson was struck by the structure Jan. 26, 2011, during recess at Elm Tree Elementary School in Bentonville.

After a nearly three-hour hearing Monday, the budget panel’s claims subcommittee found that the state Department of Human Services was liable in the boy’s death and recommended the $1 million award.

Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell, co-chairman of the budget committee, said Tuesday that Joint Budget would consider the recommendation Wednesday.

Baird said typically claims are paid by the agency with general operating funds.

“I would expect that ultimately, if this claim is approved and the report is adopted by the committee, then we would end up having to pay that claim so we would have to appropriate those dollars for that agency.”

The fourth-grader died at hospital after a goal post tipped over and struck him on the head.

Sean Keith of Rogers, attorney for the boy’s family, told the subcommittee during Monday’s hearing that the school has sovereign immunity, so the family filed a $3 million wrongful death claim against the state because the soccer goal was on a playground that, along with the school, had been inspected and licensed by DHS as an after school child-care center.

The state Claims Commission rejected the claim, ruling that the accident occurred during school hours, the boy was not enrolled in the child-care center and he was not under the supervision of employees with the center.

Keith argued DHS was responsible because its inspector was responsible for checking equipment on the playground.

Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, co-chairman of the claims subcommittee, said after the meeting that the panel ultimately agreed with the family that the playground equipment, including the soccer goal, should have been inspected by DHS officials because it is on the playground used by the after school day-care children.

“It was a tragic case. It was a tough case. I think all the committee members recognized it was a hard decision,” Thompson said. “I believe that the committee felt like (the soccer goal) was an open danger that the Department of Human Services should have recognized and fixed.”