The families of three high school football players whose teammate was fatally struck by a 400-pound log during an offseason camp can move forward, a judge has ruled, with plans to sue the Sachem Central School District for allegedly failing to provide adequate mental health services to the teenagers.
The families had 90 days after the August 2017 death of Joshua Mileto, 16, to file a notice of claim, the first step in suing a municipality. They instead waited until June, about seven months late, and the district sought to have the case thrown out.
But in his Nov. 30 ruling, State Supreme Court Justice David Reilly cited several reasons for excusing the lateness, including the district's alleged ongoing actions over the past several months.
"Petitioners maintain, in this regard, that Sachem recently began removing several football coaches from the football team," taking away the "last source of mental health therapy" for the teenagers, Reilly wrote in his decision.
Late filings are allowed when children are involved, the judge wrote, and, in addition, the defense's case won't be hurt by allowing the late filing, and the basic facts of the plaintiffs' claim were known shortly after Mileto's death.
The ruling paves the way for the parents of Matthew Kmiotek, Nicholas Paolucci and Joseph Udaze Jr. to file a $15 million suit against the district that would accuse it of causing severe emotional trauma, partly by failing to provide promised counseling.
"They are ecstatic," said the families' attorney, Kenneth Mollins of Hauppauge, who plans to file the suit within a few months. He said the $15 million would go in part toward paying for counseling.
Joseph Kmiotek said his son Matthew, who quit the football team after Mileto's death, now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeplessness and spontaneous crying outbursts.
"I have a broken child," Kmiotek said of his son, who now attends Suffolk Community College. "I don't know how to deal with it. I don't know how to help him."
An attorney for the school district did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. A district spokeswoman said it does not comment on pending litigation. School board vice president Dorothy Roberts said she could not comment beyond maintaining that counseling had been made available.
The Sachem East Touchdown Club, a parent-run booster group accused of using unsafe training methods in organizing the camp, is also named as a defendant. Board vice president Terri Matlat declined to comment Wednesday and other club members did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Mileto, an 11th-grader, and four of his teammates were running and carrying the log over their heads on the grounds of Sachem High School East when the log slipped from their hands and hit Mileto in the head. Teammates tried to help Mileto as he was bleeding and dying, Mollins said.
The families did not file a claim before the deadline because district officials had promised to provide counseling, Mollins said.
“The school kept promising to give these young men help, and they kept promising and promising and they didn’t,” he said. “There came a point when the young men and the parents decided they needed to ask the court for help because the school was abandoning them."
Initially, the district provided in-house counseling and the football coaches were volunteering time to talk to the players, Mollins said.
The help dried up even as the teenagers continued having problems with football and life, he said: “They’re having night terrors and post-traumatic stress and they’re not sleeping and they’re not eating. All of this is a result of their safety nets being taken away.”
According to the judge's decision, the district contends it never promised mental health services beyond a certain point and never pledged to pay for outside therapists. Further, Sachem argued that the families knew by fall 2017 of the limited services the district could provide under education laws, the decision said.
Michael Paolucci, whose son Nicholas, 16, had at one point been meeting weekly with a psychologist, said the family has been struggling as they search for counseling that works and professionals the teenager can feel comfortable with.
Michael Paolucci said his son came home from school "in a rage" in October of last year, breaking things in the house. The school had an assembly that day on traumatic head injuries, an event that had been planned long before Mileto died, the father said.
"I just want some peace for my son," Michael Paolucci said. "My son is here, thank God. But we need help fixing him."
With Robert Brodsky