NEW YORK (AP) -- A former high school student disfigured by a chemistry experiment was awarded nearly $60 million Monday by a jury that had heard him testify that the fireball left him in unbearable pain and feeling like he was "hopelessly burning alive."
The Manhattan jury capped a month-long trial with a $59.17 million verdict, half of which was to compensate Alonzo Yanes' for his pain and suffering since 2014 and half of which was for future pain and suffering as he copes with the damage left by burns over 31% of his body.
Yanes, now 21, was 16 when a fireball erupted as his Beacon High School teacher conducted an experiment with a gallon jug of methanol at the prestigious Manhattan school. He was hospitalized for five months afterward.
Yanes, testifying about injuries that damaged his face, neck, arms and hands and the painful skin graft surgeries he endured afterward, told jurors he remembered "feeling the fire eat away at my skin and eat away at my flesh, and it was charring me the way a piece of meat chars in a frying pan." He added: "I held my breath for as long as I could. But nothing was working. I was hopelessly burning alive, and I couldn't put myself out, and the pain was so unbearable." He also testified that the injuries caused him to be more isolated socially, and he worries he might never have a girlfriend. In a statement, the city law office said: "While we respect the jury's verdict, we are exploring our legal options to reduce the award to an amount that is consistent with awards that have been upheld by the courts in similar cases." "The well-being of students is the top priority of the Department of Education and this chemistry experiment is no longer used in any classroom as a result of this tragic accident," the law office said. Lawyers for the city had argued that the tragedy was an accident and urged jurors, if they chose to award damages, to make it about $5 million. Yanes' attorney, Ben Rubinowitz, said his client would reject the jury award "in a heartbeat" if he could be his undamaged self again. But Rubinowitz said Yanes, who now studies animation at the School of Visual Arts, will be "fighting prejudices that come with these disfiguring scars the rest of his life." Yanes was not in court when the verdict was returned, in part because it became such a spectacle whenever he was in court as pictures were taken of a young man that his lawyer said "wants to live a normal life, just like anybody else." "I think Alonzo is very appreciative that the jury did take the time and focused on the details with the intent to do justice and they did," Rubinowitz said. He said he hopes the verdict sends a message "to make sure no other child is injured and that teachers truly work to protect their children and do not take shortcuts."