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Federal suit against Oxford High students, coach moved to state court

A lawsuit filed last year by and against students of Oxford High School was dismissed in March from federal court and refiled in Calhoun County Circuit Court in April, according to court records. 

Huntsville attorney Eric Artrip filed a federal suit against two members of the school’s baseball team and its coach on Dec. 12, alleging that two boys had conspired to trick a teammate into ingesting human bodily fluids hidden in an open container of Powerade left in the field house locker room. The suit was filed on behalf of the student who had apparently ingested the drink and his father; the plaintiffs were not named in the suit, instead called John and Richard Doe. 

A federal judge dismissed the case at the request of the plaintiff’s attorneys on March 2, but it was filed again in Calhoun County on April 8 and appointed to the courtroom of Judge Shannon Page. According to Artrip, the change in venue is largely a matter of convenience for the parties in the suit, most of whom are still local to the county. The complaint also demands a struck jury, one comprised of members chosen after certain names have been struck from a list of potential jurors. 

“The law is the same, and we’re talking about the same state laws and almost identical rules,” Artrip said by phone Monday. “What has changed is the judge and the convenience of the parties, and how far they’ll have to drive to get to court.”

The suit names as defendants the boy Doe says contaminated the container, as well as another who was still a minor at the time and alleged to have knowingly encouraged Doe to drink from the bottle. Both have since graduated from the school. 

Doe became a pariah at the school, according to the suit, with other students calling him homophobic slurs, throwing and rolling Gatorade bottles at him with insulting notes attached — once throwing a bottle at his house, according to the suit, in November 2018 — leading Doe’s father to transfer him to another school before fall 2019. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for “severe personal injuries and mental anguish,” as well as court fees and the cost of medical testing for sexually transmitted diseases. 

Oxford High School baseball coach Wes Brooks was also named in the suit, alleged by the plaintiffs to have failed to follow state and school rules about personally monitoring students when they use locker rooms. 

“What I think a jury will ultimately agree with is that if he had been there, this would not have happened,” Artrip said. 

Brooks and his attorney responded to the complaint in January, saying that Oxford High School has no such rule, which would preclude male or female coaches from female or male teams, respectively, and adding the claim that law enforcement had tested the bottle and found no evidence of bodily fluids. 

Artrip said said rules and laws do exist at the school and state level, though he wasn’t prepared to give details immediately. He said he would have an assistant send more information via email; when the message arrived, however, there was no mention of state law. 

The assistant wrote that attorneys had “been informed of a school rule that requires coaches to be supervising a locker room when students are present,” that Doe had been reprimanded once for being in the locker room alone by Brooks, and that the employee handbook and school guidelines “where this rule might be written are not accessible to us.” 

Attorneys for the two former students filed responses to the complaint on May 13 and 15; though each is represented by a different attorney, both used similar language, writing that each defendant denied the allegations and demanded strict proof of the complaint’s claims. 

Attempts to reach Brooks’ attorney were unsuccessful Monday, as were attempts to reach the Alabama Board of Education for information about state laws applicable to the in-school supervision responsibilities of coaches and other staff. 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.