A Manhattan jury on Monday awarded nearly $60 million in damages to a former Beacon High School student who was badly burned by a teacher’s botched chemistry experiment more than five years ago.
The stunning amount nearly equals the $70 million-plus that Alonzo Yanes’ lawyer asked for during closing arguments last week – and more than 11 times the $5 million that the city said the permanently disfigured young man deserved.
Jurors awarded Yanes, now 21, almost $29.6 million for past pain and suffering, and an identical amount for pain and suffering in the future.
The cash will be paid out over 54 years, according to the unanimous verdict.
Plaintiff’s lawyer Ben Rubinowitz said the Yanes family was “very pleased” but would give up all the money “in a heartbeat if there was a way that the entire event could be undone.”
Jurors found the city Department of Education and teacher Anna Poole liable for both negligence and “substantial” negligence in the Jan. 2, 2014, blaze inside the high school, which was then located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Yanes suffered third-degree burns over 30% of his body – including his face, neck, arms and hands — when Poole accidentally ignited a fireball during a “Rainbow Experiment” to show the colored flames produced by various salts.
Juror Jo Ann Jacobsen, 65, who lives in the East Village, said she wanted to award even more money in damages but compromised on a lower amount.
Jacobsen wouldn’t discuss the jury’s negotiations, citing an agreement struck by the panel, but said, “We thought that Anna Poole was very negligent but she was less responsible than the Board of Education.”
“They should have given her the rules,” Jacobsen said.
“You can’t risk children’s lives.”
Another juror left the courthouse in tears.
“It was a tragedy for everybody,” said the man, who wouldn’t identify himself.
Yanes, who was 16 at the time of the mishap, testified in horrific detail about his injuries.
“I was hopelessly burning alive, and I couldn’t put myself out, and the pain was so unbearable,” he told jurors two weeks ago.
Yanes – who now studies animation at the School of Visual Arts – also revealed the heartbreaking impact of his scars, saying that he felt like “freak” and blaming insecurities about his appearance for the fact that he’s still a virgin.
Yanes spent five months in the hospital, undergoing painful treatments that included having cadaver skin stapled to his body and having his own skin sliced from his legs and scalp, then grafted onto his burns.
He told jurors how his ear tissue slowly died and had to be cut away, and how the loss of sweat glands and nerves left him feeling hot all the time – but unable to experience sensation on the skin where he was burned.
Yanes alleged that Poole ignored a slew of safety protocols while performing the experiment that included pouring highly flammable methanol directly from a gallon jug, instead of using a beaker and pipette to dispense it drop by drop.
During closing arguments, Rubinowitz also said students were seated too close to the demonstration, which took place in a classroom without a ventilated hood to remove fumes.
Another student, Julia Saltonstall, suffered third-degree burns on her arms and settled a suit for $750,000.
Lawyers for the DOE and Poole – who was removed from the classroom and now handles paperwork – downplayed the incident as a freak accident during a “ubiquitous demonstration that has been demonized by the press to make Anna Poole look terrible.”
Poole was indemnified by the city and isn’t personally responsible for any of the damages.
In a prepared statement, the city Law Department said: ““The well-being of students is the top priority of the Department of Education and this chemistry experiment is no longer used in any classroom as a result of this tragic accident.”
“While we respect the jury’s verdict, we are exploring our legal options to reduce the award to an amount that is consistent with awards that have been upheld by the courts in similar cases,” the statement added.
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