Smith, By and Through Smith v. Archbishop of St. Louis on behalf of Archdiocese of St. Louis, 42704

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Citation632 S.W.2d 516
Docket NumberNo. 42704,42704
Parties4 Ed. Law Rep. 671 Sheila SMITH, a minor, By and Through Mary SMITH, her mother, natural guardian and next friend, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. ARCHBISHOP OF ST. LOUIS, on Behalf of the ARCHDIOCESE OF ST. LOUIS, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date16 March 1982

Page 516

632 S.W.2d 516
4 Ed. Law Rep. 671
Sheila SMITH, a minor, By and Through Mary SMITH, her
mother, natural guardian and next friend,
LOUIS, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 42704.
Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, Division Two.
March 16, 1982.
Motion for Rehearing and/or Transfer Denied April 16, 1982.

Page 518

John J. Horgan, St. Louis, for defendant-appellant.

Edw. P. McSweeney, St. Louis, for plaintiff-respondent.


This is an appeal by the Archdiocese of St. Louis from a jury verdict of $1,250,000 in favor of plaintiff, Sheila Smith, in her suit alleging negligent supervision. 1 Sheila's mother brought the action as Sheila's guardian and next friend.

In May 1976, Sheila was an eight-year-old second grade student at defendant's Good Shepherd School. Sheila was to play the part of a bluebird in a school play planned for May 18. Sheila's teacher, Ms. Mary Jane Wiegand, left to Sheila's mother the styling and material of the costume; Ms. Wiegand instructed only that it should be blue and have "feathers". Sheila's mother obtained a dove costume from a neighbor and transformed it into a bluebird costume by attaching pieces of crepepaper and tissue to simulate feathers.

Because the month of May was dedicated to the Mother of Jesus, Ms. Wiegand had lighted a candle on her desk every school day since May 1. The candle was approximately eight and one-half inches tall and three inches in diameter. The candle remained lighted from prayer time earlier in the morning until recess at about 10:15 a. m. Although Ms. Wiegand was aware that children and lighted candles pose danger, she did not give the children any special instructions regarding the lighted candle. She stated that the children knew the candle was on the desk and that they were not to wander near it. Defendant had no guidelines or policy with regard to burning candles in the classroom. The school principal acknowledged that second grade children, aged seven and eight, do not pay much attention to their own safety; they have short attention spans, and must repeatedly hear instructions as to their personal safety. Sheila's mother was unaware of the custom of lighting the candle in the classroom.

On the morning of May 18, the day of the play, Ms. Wiegand lighted the candle. It remained burning as the children changed into their costumes. Ms. Wiegand was helping some of the children with their costumes in the rear of the classroom while other children, already costumed, milled around the room. Suddenly one of the children screamed, "Sheila's on fire." Ms. Wiegand turned to see Sheila standing near the desk, her head and shoulders on fire. Ms.

Page 519

Wiegand attempted to put out the flames by rolling Sheila on the floor. Unsuccessful, she next lay on Sheila and beat the flames with her hands. When this method also failed, Ms. Wiegand finally doused the flames with water from a flower vase. The teacher and principal removed Sheila's clothing and wrapped her in cold, wet towels. After Sheila's mother arrived, an ambulance took Sheila to Christian Hospital, which immediately transferred her to St. John's Mercy Hospital's burn unit.

Sheila sustained burns over 22.45% of her body. The most severe burns were located on her neck, left ear, arms, hands, and on the front of her upper thighs.

Linda Book, head nurse at St. John's burn unit, testified about Sheila's treatment during her twenty-six days hospitalization. Burn unit personnel first treated Sheila for shock. They then cleaned the burned areas with sterile gauze and saline solution. They removed the tops of the blisters to allow the medication to reach the damaged skin and applied dressings. The burned portions of Sheila's body were elevated to help decrease swelling; splints were applied to her arms and hands to prevent "drawing" or "pulling" of the skin surrounding the burned areas. The burn wounds required daily dressing changes. During these sessions, dead skin as well as the tops of blisters were removed and the damaged tissues examined to determine if further abscesses had developed under the skin.

Nurse Book testified that although Sheila received a pain pill prior to these dressing changes, the procedure was still extremely painful to her and she often cried and resisted efforts to dress the wounds. During the early days of her prolonged hospital stay, Sheila experienced high fevers, swelling, sleepless nights, homesickness, and nightmares. She was frequently unable to control her bladder at night. As the wounds began to heal, Sheila experienced severe itching caused by the thick areas of burned tissue separating from her body. Nurse Book described the itching as a "trickling" sensation; "(t)he skin feels like it's crawling or ... has ... little needles sticking in it." This thick leather-like skin (eschar) was removed using forceps and scissors. Again, although she received pain medication, Sheila resisted the procedure. Nurse Book stated that the wounds became very vascular and bled easily when dressings were removed.

When the burn wounds healed sufficiently, Sheila began physical therapy. Therapy was so painful for Sheila that her mother's visits were offered as a reward for her cooperation during treatment.

At St. John's Hospital on June 3, Sheila underwent skin graft surgery, a very painful procedure. The surgeon removed dead tissue from the burn sites and applied new skin from Sheila's hip and the back of her thigh to her shoulders, arms, and thighs. This procedure effectively doubled the wounded area since the donor sites were then as painful as the burn sites. The donor site, with its exposed nerve endings, is the equivalent of a new burn. It, too, leaves scars.

During her recovery from anesthesia, Sheila behaved frantically. When an intravenous needle in her neck was dislodged, Sheila's hysterical fear of the needle convinced attending personnel not to reinsert it. Her tossing wrinkled some of the grafts under the dressings and caused others to become "soupy". New grafts were applied to these areas. Nurse Book stated that this procedure was at least as painful as the normal dressing change.

Sheila spent twenty-six days in St. John's Hospital. Throughout her stay she suffered severe pain, fear of procedures necessary for her treatment, horror at her own appearance, and apprehension that she would be ostracized. Her inability to cope with these emotions during this time was evidenced by frequent incontinence, screaming, crying, physical violence, and continual pleas for her mother. Nurse Book testified "the most striking thing ... (she could) remember about (Sheila) was this psychological problem that continued to be with her all the way up till she was discharged ...."

Page 520

After Sheila's discharge from the hospital, her mother assumed the care and treatment of her wounds. Sheila soaked in warm water for an hour and a half each day so that her mother could loosen certain areas of the skin, pull them back, and trim them with scissors to prevent infection. Sheila also exercised several times daily to prevent pulling or shrinkage of the skin over the burn sites. These painful procedures continued until July, when Sheila's doctor observed that the skin grafts were beginning to rise and form very thick scar tissue, called keloid. He then prescribed Jobst stockings to deter keloid formation. Jobst stockings are snugly fitting garments designed to exert extreme pressure on the scarring area to prevent the scars from rising. Sheila was required to wear the garments over her arms, shoulders, and hands twenty-four hours every day. These anti-scar garments were uncomfortable and caused Sheila much embarrassment.

Unfortunately, the garments were not as effective as the doctor had hoped. Thus, in January 1977 Sheila's mother consulted Dr. Francis Paletta, a plastic surgeon, regarding the keloid problem. Dr. Paletta recommended regrafting of the burned areas, a procedure which he began in four separate operations between April 1977 and April 1978. Each operation required Sheila to be hospitalized for seven to ten days. After surgery, Sheila again wore the Jobst garments and kept the regrafted areas lubricated. Although this surgery smoothed the scar tissue, the scars are still quite obvious and will always be so. Furthermore, as Sheila grows older the scar tissue will dry and age much more rapidly than the undamaged skin.

At the time of the trial Dr. Paletta had grafted the scarred areas on Sheila's neck and jaw, left forearm, left hand, and right arm. Keloid formations remained on her thighs, arms, chest, and one ear. Dr. Paletta expected to see Sheila intermittently in the future for regrafting of some of the remaining scars. He stated, however, that Sheila's scars are permanent.

Sheila's mother, Ms. Smith, testified that after the accident, Sheila was the object of much curiosity and attention. For example, people would ask Sheila whether she was the little girl with scars. Before Dr. Paletta regrafted the keloid formation on Sheila's neck, one person commented that the scar looked like "fifty wads of chewing gum". Ms. Smith further testified that prior to the accident, Sheila was in every way a normal, inquisitive, friendly eight-year-old child. Ms. Smith stated that she was proud of the way Sheila had coped with the physical and psychological trauma generally, but that there were distinct changes in her personality. Sheila could no longer stand to be alone. She constantly groomed and primped in an attempt to hide her scars. She was extremely nervous, often speaking so rapidly that her mother could not understand her. She lacked self-confidence and expressed fears about her future.

Dr. Bernstein, a professor of psychiatry, examined Sheila and also testified about her emotional state. Dr. Bernstein stated Sheila was clearly more anxious, active, and troubled than a...

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