WOODLAND PARK ZOO and the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation seem to have lucked out—a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court here against them by seven Seattle teenagers recently was settled for a measly $20,000.
In February, attorney Austin Agomuoh asked U.S. District Judge John Coughenour to order the zoo and the Parks Department to pay $150,000 to each of his seven teenage clients, who claimed that in 2000 the zoo discriminated against them on the basis of race and national origin, committed torturous battery, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. The teens are members of Seattle's Oromo community who came here from Ethiopia. They say that while participating in an educational project at the zoo, staff members told them that African children are usually sick, so they would need to have injections to prevent them from passing diseases to the animals. Then, the teens say, six of them were injected with a solution that caused one of them to go unconscious for an hour and another to require extensive medical treatment.
The zoo's version of events is different. In a sworn statement in court records, Leathia Krasucki, education-program assistant at the zoo, says she, along with other zoo and city employees, recruited the teens from the Oromo Community Center to be zoo volunteers. Because of her own African-American heritage, she says, she was very interested in working with them.
The seven Oromo teens agreed to become volunteers and attended an orientation at the zoo in September 2000, along with six other teens from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. At their orientation, Krasucki says, she handed out parental-consent forms for tuberculosis testing. But then she noticed that a nurse was on zoo grounds that day administering TB tests. Fearing it would be inconvenient for the teens' parents to take them to the health department for TB tests, she suggested that six of the Oromo teens have their tests done that day at the zoo. She says her understanding was that the seventh Oromo teen was a hemophiliac and could not be tested. "I now realize I should have waited for parental consent," Krasucki says in her statement.
Zoo administrators admitted the zoo's failure to obtain parental consent before performing a medical procedure on minors—a violation of Washington law. But Assistant City Attorney Kathleen Haggard, representing Woodland Park Zoo and the Parks Department, denied the allegations of discrimination, battery, and infliction of emotional distress.
In August, Agomuoh upped the ante and asked for $250,000 per child, according to Haggard. Then he did an about-face and said his clients would settle for a total of only $20,000. The settlement was approved last Friday. Asked about his surprising offer, Agomuoh said, "The clients decided to settle the case. They were concerned about the impact of the facts of the case on the children. . . . They wanted to get on with their lives, and I respect that." Agomuoh claims to have spent 157 hours on the case, but soon after filing it, he moved to Detroit to work on a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Nigerian dictators on behalf of Nigerians who allege violations of their human rights. The question arises as to how much time Agomuoh really had to devote to the teens' case in Seattle.
Haggard says she's unable to explain the sudden offer to settle, but she thinks the settlement was fair. "The zoo has been forthright in apologizing to the Oromo community and taking responsibility for their failure to obtain parental consent for a medical procedure done on a minor," she says. "But the discrimination allegations were unjust, unfounded, and unfair. The allegations simply went way too far, and we think the settlement reflects that no harm was intended."
It might also reflect the fact that Agomuoh has bigger fish to fry. At any rate, all that is left now is for Agomuoh to collect his third of the settlement plus expenses and then divvy out what little is left to the six teens who received the TB tests without parental consent.