The California State University will pay out a settlement of $39.5 million to the family of a student who experienced heatstroke while participating in a jogging exercise at Cal State San Bernardino in September 2018 and requires round-the-clock care.
The settlement is believed to be the largest ever paid by the CSU in an injury-related case.
In addition to the money, the CSU agreed to develop and implement systemwide policies and protocols for preventing and responding to heat-related illness. Those protocols would apply to all academic environments for the system’s 485,000 students across 23 campuses.
In September 2018, Marissa Freeman, then a junior studying nutrition and psychology at Cal State San Bernardino, suffered severe brain injury, cardiac arrest and organ failure after collapsing from severe heatstroke toward the end of a 5K run on campus, according to court papers and her attorneys. The run was part of a jogging class.
Freeman’s injuries ultimately resulted in impairments to her cognitive function, speech and motor control, and Freeman now uses a wheelchair and requires round-the-clock care.
Art Freeman, Marissa’s father, said the settlement money will enable the family to seek out the best possible care specific to her injuries.
“It means that we would be able to do the things for Marissa that are necessary that we could try to recover as much of her ability as we can,” he said.
The family also sought to prevent other students from experiencing the same outcome, including the development of heat illness prevention policies as a condition of the settlement.
“I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy. Our daughter was a thriving college student, ” Art Freeman said. “It’s important that these things are put into place so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Andrew Jones, the CSU’s executive vice chancellor and general counsel, said in a statement: “The California State University is saddened by Ms. Freeman’s situation, and our hearts go out to her and her caring family. We are relieved to come to a resolution that will enable Ms. Freeman to receive the care she needs for the rest of her life.
“The university will continue to take steps to heighten the awareness of our faculty, staff and students to the potential for heat-related injuries and how to [militate] against them.”
The vast majority of the settlement will be covered by insurance. The costs of defense and a small portion of the settlement will be covered by a risk management pool that all CSU campuses pay into regularly.
The lawsuit alleged that Freeman’s instructor and the university were negligent, failing to provide sufficient supervision and rest for students, to call for medical aid in a timely way, and to respond adequately with cooling measures after the heatstroke happened. It also alleged that the CSU was negligent in the hiring, retention, supervision and/or training of Freeman’s instructor.
Pre-trial hearings and jury selection had begun in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic and with extensive safety precautions. Jury selection was halted in December amid the surge of cases in Southern California, with the trial scheduled to resume this month.
“Our clients are grateful for the Court allowing them to exercise their 7th Amendment constitutional right to a trial by jury,” Brian Panish, an attorney for Freeman’s family, said in a statement. “Without the trial proceeding forward, the case would not have resolved.”