Court rules against mom of Cobb teen who drowned on school trip

The Georgia Supreme Court has halted a wrongful death claim brought by the mother of a Cobb County teenager who drowned on a school field trip in Belize.

The court ruled that Adell Forbes' lawsuit could not go forward because it was not filed within the one-year time period required in the Central American country. Tomari Jackson, a 14-year-old North Cobb High School student, drowned Feb. 13, 2016, in the Sibun River at the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary while on a school-sponsored international studies magnet trip.

Tricia “CK” Hoffler, who represented Forbes, said the teen’s mother is disappointed in the ruling, but is "not disappointed with the effort, tenacity and our ability to leave no stone unturned” in trying to hold people accountable in her son’s death.

Forbes filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit on March 24, 2017 in Cobb County State Court against nine Cobb schools chaperones, the Cobb County School District, Cobb County government and the sanctuary. The suit alleges the defendants didn’t do enough to prevent Tomari’s death or keep an eye on the kids, none of whom were wearing life vests.

Forbes dropped the lawsuit against the county government, and the trial court dismissed the case against the school district and chaperones on the grounds that they were protected by sovereign and official immunity. It also tossed the wrongful death complaint on the basis that Belize has a one-year time limit for plaintiffs to file claims against defendants in a case like this one.

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Forbes appealed the trial court’s ruling on the wrongful death claims, and the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision by saying Georgia’s two-year statute of limitation applied in the case.

However, in its decision to overturn the appellate court’s ruling, the Supreme Court said it has relied on 100 years of legal precedent that states any action in a civil suit must follow the laws where the alleged wrongdoing occurred. The justices said that because the drowning took place in Belize, the wrongful death lawsuit was required to be filed within the window Belize has established for filing such a suit.

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Attorney Lee Clayton of Atlanta-based Swift, Currie McGhee & Hiers LLP, who represented two of the teacher chaperones in the case, said his clients are satisfied with Monday’s ruling.

“My clients believe the Supreme Court got the right result and decision today,” he said.

Part of the case could still go forward because the Supreme Court was not asked to review a Court of Appeals ruling that Forbes' personal injury claims can move ahead. Those claims were within Georgia’s two-year statute of limitations.