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Odor not covered by insurance

Published March 7, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Take the puzzle of liability insurance, and add the mystery smell that evacuated 1,475 students from Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics on Jan. 26.

The result, like a bad chemistry experiment, has been nothing but frustration for the Hernando County School Board.

At least 12 families have complained to the district and a few board members after receiving medical and ambulance bills for 36 students who were taken to the hospital as a precaution.

On Tuesday the board learned that its insurance administrator doesn't pay for mystery smells.

"We would have paid those bills on your behalf if we'd determined you were the cause of the problem," said Ted Bennett, a risk management supervisor with the district's insurance pool, the Northeast Florida Educational Consortium. "We always look for a way to pay the claim, not a way to deny the claim."

He said Florida districts are routinely covered for adults who slip and fall on school property, but generally don't cover medical payments for incidents that befall their children, unless the liability is clear.

Board members found that troubling, particularly for uninsured families who are now facing bills of $1,000 or more for the Challenger incident.

"Those are the ones we really have a concern about," said Chairman Pat Fagan.

Officials said a supplemental insurance policy that covers children at school for as little as $7 per year might have covered up to 60 percent of those bills.

"Maybe we could have done more to promote it," said Finance Director Deborah Bruggink.

But in the meantime, several board members said they wanted to know more about what families were charged by ambulance companies and hospitals for the evacuation.

"If there's any relief that the agencies could give, now's the time," said Jim Malcolm. "I would hope those agencies would take a real look at the situation."

One of those ambulance providers, Spring Hill Fire Rescue, has already forgiven all bills related to the incident, said Chief J.J. Morrison.

And a Brooksville Regional Hospital spokesman said it hadn't charged families extra money for instituting full decontamination procedures to remove any potential contaminants.

Neither Oak Hill nor Spring Hill Regional hospitals instituted those decontamination plans.

"Based on the information that was given to us, that was the correct call," said Brooksville Regional's chief operating officer, Corey Lively.

Walter Pannone, chief nursing supervisor at Oak Hill, said his emergency room received no indication that students came into contact with a chemical spill or irritant that would require such procedures.

"They were all in relatively good shape by the time they got here," he said, except for one child with asthma-related problems.

Of the 36 students who were evacuated, five kids came from the classroom with the smell, according to district security director Barry Crowley. Others had some complaints that he thought might not rise to the level of an ambulance trip to the hospital.

But paramedics opted to transport all children to be safe, and school officials at the scene supported that judgment, Crowley said.

Board members were in full agreement with that call.

"Because if the worst had happened and paramedics had done nothing, and we had done nothing, this would have been an entirely different workshop," Malcolm said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or

[Last modified March 7, 2007, 06:49:19]

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