Courtroom - Photo courtesy of David Veksler on Unsplash

A judge Wednesday heard arguments on whether claims for wrongful death and punitive damages should remain part of a lawsuit brought against the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in the COVID-related death of a 40-year-old teacher allegedly caused by the organization’s denial of accommodations to her despite her underlying health conditions.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis took under submission the case brought by 18-year-old Lizbeth Bolanos and her 16-year-old brother. The two are the offspring of the late Magdalena Carrasco of East Los Angeles. The boy’s interests are represented in the complaint by Carrasco’s sister, Jenifer Lopez, who is the plaintiffs’ aunt and is serving as the boy’s guardian. The suit also alleges failure to engage in the good-faith interactive process and failure to accommodate a disability.

MAOF attorneys filed motions on Feb. 25 asking that the plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages and wrongful death be dismissed. Under California law, a wrongful death cause of action cannot be brought against an employer where a worker claims to have been injured on the job and relief must instead be sought through workers compensation, the MAOF lawyers argue.

MAOF attorney Joshua Lange told the judge that even with a dismissal of the wrongful death allegation, the plaintiffs will still have two other causes of action left in their complaint.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Barta, who argued against dismissing the wrongful death claim, also urged Duffy-Lewis to not strike the claim for punitive damages.

“People were dying, they compelled her to work, I don’t know what else constitutes malice, she ultimately died for it,” Barta said.

MAOF provides child care and development services to children. Its website states the organization’s mission is to “provide for the socio-economic betterment of the greater Latino community of California, while preserving the pride, values and heritage of the Mexican-American culture.”

MAOF employed Carrasco for many years, first as a teacher’s assistant and later as a teacher at MAOF’s Telegraph Center in East Los Angeles, which provides infant and toddler care, the suit states. She taught children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old in MAOF’s Head Start program, according to the suit filed Nov. 30.

MAOF closed for a time during the pandemic, then reopened in September 2020 after the organization held an online meeting concerning teachers, staff, supervisors and administrators, the suit states.

“Some of the people in attendance were concerned that it was too soon and too risky to reopen MAOF at that time,” the suit states.

Carrasco was one of those who expressed concern, noting that the virus was still spreading, and she also worried about her underlying health condition and the increased risks she faced from the virus if she returned to teaching at the school, according to the suit.

MAOF’s supervisors and administrators knew Carrasco had diabetes, that she had lost vision in one eye and was seeking medical treatment for her other eye, the suit states. However, MAOF did not try to find a reasonable accommodation for her condition by providing her with such options as more personal protective equipment, increased social distancing, the ability to work remotely or the grant of a leave of absence, the suit states.

“Instead, MAOF had Ms. Carrasco return to work, where she was exposed to COVID-19,” the suit states.

Several other teachers did work from home during that time, providing virtual learning to the students whose parents chose to keep them home, the suit states.

MAOF closed two classrooms from September to December 2020 due to exposure to COVID-19, but the organization did not shut down the entire facility, the suit states.

Carrasco contracted COVID-19 while working at MAOF in November or December 2020, became ill and died Dec. 3, 2020, according to the suit.

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