Trustee files claim vs. DUSD over wife's death at campus event | August 27, 2021 | Pleasanton Weekly | PleasantonWeekly.com |

Pleasanton Weekly

News - August 27, 2021

Trustee files claim vs. DUSD over wife's death at campus event

William Kuo's attorneys decry lack of 'basic safety protocols'; superintendent says claim in Catherine Kuo's death was expected

by By Jeremy Walsh

Dublin Unified School District Trustee William Kuo has filed a negligence claim against the district citing a lack of "basic safety protocols" in place at the school volunteer event where his wife and then-trustee Catherine Kuo was fatally pinned between two cars in March.

The claim, which seeks an undetermined amount of financial damages, alleges the setup at the Fallon Middle School food distribution event created "an unreasonable, foreseeable risk of severe harm to volunteers" and was a "substantial factor that directly and proximately" contributed to Catherine Kuo's death.

"Everything we have at this point is that there were no verbal instructions, there were no written communications to the volunteers or the public, and there were no posted signage related to anything about safety," Kuo family attorney Nick Casper said to the Weekly during an interview last Friday morning.

"Ultimately, it led to volunteers being placed in between cars that had ignitions on," Casper added. "There are some kind of bedrock guideposts for safety, and you don't want to have people between cars that are on, especially when the cars are close together."

DUSD Superintendent Chris Funk confirmed that the district received the claim on Aug. 16 -- which was the first day of school for Dublin students in the 2021-22 academic year.

"We were expecting this claim as a natural result of the tragic death of Trustee Catherine Kuo. The claim has been submitted to our insurance carrier. I can only imagine the grief that the Kuo family must still be working through," Funk told the Weekly by email on Friday.

A tort claim is a required precursor before a lawsuit can be filed against a public entity in California. The district has 45 days to accept, reject or do nothing with the claim, which also lists the Kuos' 15-year-old son Thomas and 11-year-old daughter Natalie as claimants.

William Kuo, who was appointed by the other trustees in May to succeed his late wife in representing Trustee Area 3, will recuse himself from any discussions the board has about the claim, but he does not foresee this week's filing having any other impacts on his service, according to his attorney.

"Simply, the fact he has a pending claim against the district doesn't bear on his ability to serve on the Board of Trustees," said Casper, who is a partner at the Walnut Creek-based law firm Casper, Meadows, Schwartz & Cook.

"He's really committed to the mission of the district. He's honored to serve as a trustee. But at the same time, he and his children intend to hold the district accountable for its role in the death of Catherine. He's placed in a difficult position, but it's one he finds himself in," Casper said of William Kuo.

The shocking circumstances of Catherine Kuo's death rocked the Dublin community after news broke on March 24.

Catherine Kuo, 48, was volunteering at Fallon to distribute prepacked food boxes available to residents on a first-come, first-served basis through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Farmers to Families Food Box Family."

The second-year DUSD trustee was standing behind a parked Tesla sedan with its trunk open to receive a food box around 11:45 a.m. March 24 when a BMW SUV in the designated pickup queue behind them drove forward and hit her from behind, pinning the DUSD trustee between the two vehicles.

Catherine Kuo sustained catastrophic injuries that would prove fatal. She was transported to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, where she was pronounced dead that afternoon.

Dublin Police Services conducted a nearly seven-week investigation before concluding the BMW driver -- whom police did not publicly identify -- inadvertently accelerated after failing to put her SUV into the park gear. The Alameda County District Attorney's Office reviewed the case and declined to file criminal charges against the driver in May.

The Kuos' claim states that just before the forward acceleration and collision, an unnamed DUSD employee approached and instructed the BMW driver to open the rear hatch of her SUV so he could load a food box into the trunk area.

"DUSD's failures that created an unreasonable risk of harm included, but are not limited to: instructing volunteers to place food boxes in a manner in which the volunteers would be between vehicles; failing to require members of the public participating in the event to turn off their vehicles' ignitions; and failing to ensure that there was a minimum safe distance between vehicles," the claim argues.

No individual DUSD employees or representatives are identified as responsible in the claim at this point in the case.

The claim seeks unspecified monetary damages above the statutory minimum for the loss of Catherine Kuo's love and companionship and her financial support from their lives, plus the medical costs incurred as a result of the emergency treatment before her death.

As for whether the case will move forward to a lawsuit, if the claim is rejected by the district, Casper declined to specify but said based on past experience, "most claims in general, if there's a willingness and interest in pursuing it, do end up becoming lawsuits."

He added, "If there is an eventual filing of a lawsuit we intend to hold all parties that we deem played a part in, played a role in Catherine's death, to be held responsible, and that would likely include the driver of the BMW.

"We can't say at this time whether the USDA or federal government would be a party in this case. We would have to develop facts that they played a role, a substantial factor in the lack of instruction, the lack of warnings for this event."

Editor's note: The Kuo family's claim, which can be accessed at PleasantonWeekly.com, does identify the driver by name. The Weekly has redacted the name from the claim at this point, in line with Embarcadero Media's policy on when to identify private individuals in cases that do not result in criminal charges. Our editorial board plans to revisit the question if a civil complaint is filed against the driver.

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