Family of student who died in golf cart crash files claim against Orange Unified School District
The family of a 15-year-old autistic El Modena High School student who died this week in a golf cart crash on campus has filed a claim against the Orange Unified School District, saying it was negligent and caused his death. The district responded that it has video of the scene leading up to the crash showing the teen was never left unattended.
Robert Glassman, the Orange family’s attorney, said at a news conference on Friday morning Emmanuel “Manny” Perez was in the cart by himself, and that “the school allowed him and gave him access to a vehicle with the key in the ignition, with access to the pedals that can cause it to accelerate.
“You don’t leave a vehicle, whether it’s a golf cart or any other type of running vehicle, alone with a young boy like Manny who doesn’t understand and appreciate any danger that he may be in,” Glassman said.
The school district on Friday afternoon issued a statement indicating the key was not in the ignition at the time of the accident.
“We have been wrestling with the question of how a parked golf cart can be operated by simply depressing the accelerator … You have our commitment that we will make whatever adjustments we need to ensure that no person can operate the vehicle without the key in place,” the statement said.
The district also said it launched “a thorough top-to-bottom audit of our entire fleet of golf carts” the day after the crash, checking them for any defects and sending several in for maintenance. It added, “In the weeks ahead we will use the results of that audit to decide how to upgrade or replace golf carts so their accelerators cannot be operational without a key in place.”
On Monday morning, Sept. 9, Perez was in the golf cart when it accelerated forward and eventually crashed. The claim, filed Thursday, Sept. 12 in Orange County Superior Court, says the cart crashed into a horizontal beam, resulting in serious injuries.
But the district said Manny was not left unattended.
The statement released on Friday said: “His one-to-one aide and a second aide were always next to him or near him as he moved through campus. As they approached the parked golf cart, Manny ran ahead about ten feet to get into the passenger seat. He stayed in the passenger seat for approximately 30 seconds even though the aides were both trying to persuade him to get out and go into the cafeteria for the nutrition break.
“The aides were following standard prevention protocol by using verbal de-escalation prompts and redirection, instead of physical efforts to get him out of the cart.”
The aides were unaware that the cart was operational at the time, the statement continued.
“Once Manny depressed the accelerator both aides aggressively tried to stop the vehicle from moving forward. One aide even physically held onto the back of the cart, as it was moving,” the district said.
At his news conference, Glassman said he believed the district has video surveillance of the incident. In its statement, the district said it does have video but will not release it yet.
“We have used video footage to trace the sequence of events leading up to the golf cart crash. Those images provide a factual record of what happened. Our public statements have been based on what we saw on those video clips,” the district said.
But, it added, “Out of compassion and respect for the family, the district chose not to release the video footage publicly. “At an appropriate time, we will be providing that footage to the family’s legal counsel as evidence of what happened during the accident.”
The claim does not list a monetary amount but says Perez’s family has incurred medical, funeral and burial expenses. The district has 90 days to respond to the claim. After that, the family will decide whether to go forward with a lawsuit.
Micaela Corona, Perez’s mother, told reporters at the news conference that she often fretted about her son’s safety because he had the mental capacity of a 3- to 5-year-old child.
“It was something I always worried about,” she said. But she didn’t think he was in danger at school.
“When the school called me they just said he was in an accident but they didn’t tell me anything else…I thought he had just hurt his leg,” she said.
Corona said she was surprised at how the crash happened when she later heard details.
She learned at the hospital that her son’s abdomen was impacted and he had internal bleeding. Even so, she held out hope he would pull through. But he remained unresponsive and died later that night.
“I told him I loved him and that I would always be thinking about him,” she said in tears.
Her son was a gentle, happy boy who always hugged her tightly and talked about being a firefighter when he grew up, she said. He leaves behind three siblings.
Perez’s uncle Pedro Sanchez told reporters how his nephew was like a son to him. “He was a loving boy with his mother, with my wife and my children,” he said.
“All I know is that we’re going to miss him very much.”