A California school district agreed to pay $27 million to the legal guardians of a 13-year-old boy who was fatally beaten at school in what the family’s attorneys say is the “the largest bullying settlement in the United States.”
Diego Stolz was a student at Landmark Middle School in Moreno Valley, California, on September 16, 2019, when he was sucker-punched in the head by two other male students, according to the lawsuit. He fell to the ground and hit his head on a concrete pillar, causing a massive brain injury, the lawsuit states.
The fight was captured on graphic video by a witness. Diego never regained consciousness and died nine days later.
The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in 2020, alleged that administrators at the school had been warned before that Diego was being bullied, yet they “completely disregarded such warnings and did absolutely nothing to stop the bullying.” The suit also accused the Moreno Valley Unified School District and its employees of “blatantly ignoring red flags that could have saved Diego’s life.”
The family’s law firm sent CNN a statement announcing the settlement on Thursday, nearly four years since the fatal fight.
“The family will forever be heartbroken by the death of Diego but they hope this case brings about change in school districts across the country,” lead counsel Dave Ring said in the statement. “Schools need to realize that bullying can never be tolerated and that any complaints of bullying and assault must be taken seriously. Diego’s death was preventable if this school had simply prioritized an anti-bullying policy.”
“This lawsuit has put schools on notice to find ways to effectively deal with bullying and to enact real anti-bullying policies,” attorney Neil Gehlawat said. “Although his family’s grief can never be taken away, we believe real change will come, and there will be a renewed focus on anti-bullying programs across the nation.”
The school district’s lawyer, Michael Marlatt, said his client determined the settlement was a “fair and reasonable amount.”
“We recognized that this was tragic case with challenging legal issues,” Marlatt said.
“Given the reality of the facts of the case and recent trend of jury verdicts, it made sense to have a resolution in the amount of $27 million,” he said.
Moreno Valley Unified School District Superintendent Martinrex Kedziora sent a letter to families and staff on Wednesday announcing the settlement and highlighting some anti-bullying efforts over the past few years.
“On behalf of the Moreno Valley Unified School District Board of Education, we want you to know that we truly care about each and every student and staff member in our district,” Kedziora wrote. “The news of Diego’s death was not something we took lightly. The safety and well-being of our students is and will remain our top priority.”
The two teenage boys involved in the assault admitted to charges of involuntary manslaughter, according to CNN affiliate KABC. They spent 47 days in juvenile custody and in 2021 were sentenced to probation and released to the custody of their parents, KABC reported.
What the lawsuit alleged
The lawsuit alleges that Diego was “repeatedly bullied, both verbally and physically,” by other boys, including two boys identified as J.D. and M.E., during his seventh grade year at the middle school despite the family’s complaints to school administrators.
The bullying continued at the start of his eighth grade year, and he was bullied and punched in the head on Thursday, September 12, leading him to seek help from a science teacher at the school, the lawsuit states.
The teacher reported the incident to an assistant principal and noted the bullying was likely captured on school security cameras, the suit states. However, the assistant principal did not check the footage and did nothing in response, the suit states.
The next day, Diego and his cousin – the daughter of his legal guardian — met with the assistant principal at school, who related that the bullies involved would be suspended for three days and their schedules would be changed so they would no longer be in his class, the suit states. Yet, on Monday when Diego returned to school, the bullies, identified as J.D. and M.E., were still in the school, the suit states.
That day, as captured on the witness video, J.D. and M.E. confronted Diego, who stood there with his hands by his side, the suit states. J.D. then punched Diego in the face, and as he staggered backward, M.E. punched him from the side, knocking his head into a concrete pillar, the suit states.
The principal and two assistant principals were removed from the middle school after his death, the attorneys said in a statement.
The middle school did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CNN’s Kevin Flower contributed to this report.