Crime & Courts

Firework injury at school caused local mom $1.3m bill, so she’s suing the district

Firework mishaps: they are fun until they’re dangerous.

Things don't always go as planned. Fireworks accidents happen and can have serious consequences.
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Things don't always go as planned. Fireworks accidents happen and can have serious consequences.

A Columbia woman who was severely injured after a Fourth of July fireworks incident is suing Richland School District 1 and the district’s security provider.

Leah McCleskey and her husband, Jonathan McCleskey, along with their 4-year-old son went to the Hand Middle School campus in the Shandon neighborhood to watch the fireworks that people were setting off.

The moment went from a family memory to horror when McCleskey was hit by what her husband suspects was a mortar style firework. He watched the firework lift her three feet off the ground, he told The State in July. He saw her burning and had to snuff out the flames. The experience, and McCleskey’s recovery, brought an outpouring of community support for her and her family. She was hospitalized for almost two months, returning home in late August.

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Now, McCleskey and her husband, represented by Taylor Powell of the lawfirm Lesemann & Associates of Charleston, are calling Richland 1 and Sizemore Security to account for the physical and mental trauma caused by the accident.

“We cannot go back in time to prevent what happened,” McCleskey told The State. “Everything in our lives was changed by this event and pursuing this is the only way to hold those who could and should have prevented this event financially accountable.”

The suit says that McCleskey “endured excruciating pain when she was hit in the chest with the firework, which subsequently exploded causing deep shrapnel wounds and setting Mrs. McCleskey on fire.”

The suit also includes graphic pictures of McCleskey’s injuries, showing deep gashes in her arms and legs.

McCleskey was rushed to medical care and eventually spent 42 days in a burn center in Augusta, where she underwent 11 “grueling surgeries” to remove shrapnel and debris and treat her wounds, according to the suit. Both the wife and husband suffered mental and emotional trauma from the experience. Witnessing his wife’s suffering caused Jonathan McCleskey insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression, court documents say.

The McCleskeys incurred $1.3 million in medical bills, which will continue to grow from future physical therapy and more surgeries, the suit says.

The suit claims that a security guard at Hand Middle School during the incident acted negligently, so the company that employees the guard is partially responsible for McCleskey’s injuries.

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Richland 1 contracts with Sizemore Inc. of Atlanta to provide security services at the district’s schools, according to the suit.

The suit alleges the Sizemore guard who was at the Hand Middle School grounds on July 4 “failed to demonstrate good judgment that should be expected of a reasonable private security guard” and “failed to maintain a safe environment.”

The suit also claims that the guard should have known that setting off fireworks on the grounds violated Richland 1 regulations and that failing to enforce that regulation was negligent. People have set off fireworks at Hand Middle School for a decade, and Sizemore should have known this and stopped the fireworks before they began, according to the suit.

The Senior Vice President of Sizemore Inc., Robert Cadarr, said the company is unable to comment on pending litigation.

The school district should be held accountable because, while the contract between Sizemore and Richland 1 is “very specific in the duties and responsibilities” of the guard, the district had no oversight to ensure the security company’s guard was performing the duties, the lawsuit said. The school district should have known people gather at Hand Middle to set off fireworks and should have prevented it, the suit alleges.

A Richland 1 spokesperson said the school district doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The McCleskeys are asking for a trial by jury, which they hope will provide them with actual and punitive damages of an undefined amount, according to court documents.

McCleskey calls the ordeal “the most challenging and difficult” episode in her life.

“Being away from my family and child was almost more than I could bear,” she said. “The time that I lost with my family, at my job, and doing things that I love can never be replaced, and we want to ensure that no one else will have to go through what we have.”