LAKEVILLE, Minn. — A former Lakeville South High School student injured after crashing his pickup truck while playing a “Nerf War” game in 2015 is suing the Lakeville school district, claiming it failed to protect its students.
In a lawsuit filed this week in Dakota County District Court, Alexander Hughes, now 21, alleges that district officials knew or should have known students were playing Nerf War and “failed to use reasonable care to fulfill the duties that it owed its students.”
The single-vehicle crash south of Lakeville left Hughes with fractures to his skull and vertebrae, as well as a traumatic brain injury causing permanent paralysis to the left side of his face, according to the lawsuit, which asks for over $50,000.
Hughes’ classmates Jacob Flynn, 17, and John Price, 18, were killed after being ejected from Hughes’ Toyota Tundra pickup, which rolled several times. Mason Kohlbeck, 18, the only one wearing a seat belt, was not ejected and suffered minor injuries.
Last February, the parents of Flynn and Price sued the district for wrongful death, alleging it failed to execute existing policies; failed to develop an anti-Nerf War policy; failed to warn students, parents and law enforcement about the game; and failed to train employees.
On Monday, Dec. 31, a judge granted a motion by the attorneys for the plaintiffs and the district to consolidate the two cases.
Michael Bryant, Hughes’ attorney, said Thursday that the school district knew about Nerf Wars “and they didn’t do anything.”
In an answer to Hughes’ lawsuit, the district denied all liability for his injuries. A Thursday statement issued by the district notes the crash happened after the school day and more than two miles from the school. The accident “was in no way connected to a sanctioned or supported school activity,” the statement read.
The 'Nerf War'
The lawsuit alleges Nerf War had been played by students at Lakeville South and Lakeville North high schools since about 2013. Teams of students would “kidnap” and “kill” members of rival teams by shooting them with a Nerf gun or stabbing them with a plastic spoon.
Players paid money to play, and the pot went to the team with the last “surviving” player.
Although schools and places of worship were considered “safe zones,” players would kidnap players from the “safe zones” and “kill” them, according to the lawsuit.
Students used two Twitter accounts to communicate about the game. The school district’s official Twitter account “liked” or re-Tweeted posts from the accounts, the lawsuit states. High school teachers, the school district, Lakeville South football coaches and local politicians followed the accounts.
In 2013, the Lakeville South newspaper ran a story about the game, the lawsuit states. In 2015, the prize money for Lakeville South students was more than $6,000.
Lakeville South activities director Neil Strader emailed school administrators in October 2015 that neighbors had come to him with concerns about the "Nerf War." They “took no action in response … to warn, protect or ensure the safety of students at LSHS from the dangers of Nerf War,” the lawsuit alleges.
On the day of the crash, Dec. 4, 2015, Flynn was surrounded by Hughes, Price and Kohlbeck in the school’s parking lot. Witnesses said Flynn resisted being placed in Hughes’ pickup but eventually was captured and got inside, the Dakota County attorney’s office said.
According to a witness to the crash, Hughes’ truck crossed the center line and went into the opposite lane, then swerved back before rolling three or four times.
An investigation by the Dakota County sheriff’s office and the Minnesota State Patrol, which completed an accident reconstruction, concluded that one of the passengers had bumped Hughes, causing him to veer off course and then overcorrect.
The investigation found no signs that Hughes was impaired and determined that his truck was traveling at or near the posted speed limit at the time of the crash, the county attorney’s office said.
In April 2016, the attorney’s office declined to file charges in the case. The students were willing participants in the game, the office said.