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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Custodian’s stress-disorder suit restored

Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer

A custodian who sued her school district after being forced to clean up the bloody scene of a student’s suicide had her lawsuit reinstated Tuesday by the Washington Court of Appeals.

Debbie Rothwell, who still works at Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a lawsuit filed in May 2007 by her lawyer, William Powell, of Spokane. The 16-year-old student shot himself in the head inside the school’s main entrance in 2004. The lawsuit was dismissed in January 2008 by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Greg Sypolt, who ruled the incident was covered by the Industrial Insurance Act.

But the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling, disagreed and reinstated the suit.

“There are people who do clean up the mess after one of these horrible murders or suicides happen,” Powell said Tuesday, referring to private professionals. “But the superintendent in this case chose not to do that. He should have known better.”

Along with former Superintendent Michael Green, now superintendent of the Woodland School District in Western Washington, the lawsuit names the Nine Miles Falls School District as a defendant.

None was available for comment. Like most civil suits in Washington, the complaint seeks unspecified damages.

Rothwell’s complaints center around her task of cleaning up the suicide scene, then being asked to move a backpack she later learned belonged to the victim and contained a suspicious device that authorities detonated using a robot.

She stayed at work until after 4 a.m., cleaning the mess of blood, brain and bone alone, becoming “emotionally distraught and physically ill” before returning to the school less than four hours later at Green’s orders to serve cookies and coffee to grieving students and keep the media from the school, according to the suit.

At issue in the court decisions was whether Rothwell’s claim of post-traumatic stress disorder fell under the industrial injury act, which prohibits lawsuits based on industry injury or occupational disease.

Judges John A. Schultheis and Dennis J. Sweeney ruled it didn’t because it wasn’t the result of one work order. Her trauma grew over several days, according to their written opinion. Judge Teresa C. Kulik dissented.