A lawsuit filed after 13-year-old Diego Stolz was beaten to death by two middle school students has ended in a $27 million settlement, according to lawyers representing the victim's legal guardians.
“This lawsuit has put schools on notice to find ways to effectively deal with bullying and to enact real anti-bullying policies,” Neil Gehlawat, one of the family's attorneys, said in a written statement obtained by TODAY.com.
“Although his family’s grief can never be taken away, we believe real change will come, and there will be a renewed focus on anti-bullying programs across the nation.”
The settlement represents the largest bullying settlement ever reached in the United States, according to the same written statement.
At the time of his death, Stolz was a student at Landmark Middle School in Moreno Valley, California, a town about 62 miles east of Los Angeles.
The school district’s lawyer, Michael Marlatt, told the Los Angeles Times that the “tragic facts and circumstances surrounding (Diego) Stolz‘s death” led the district to settle. He added that a defense in court “would be challenging.”
“The family will forever be heartbroken by the death of Diego but they hope this case brings about change in school districts across the country,” Dave Ring, the lead council representing the family, said in a written statement. “Schools need to realize that bullying can never be tolerated and that any complaints of bullying and assault must be taken seriously. Diego’s death was preventable if this school had simply prioritized an anti-bullying policy.”
In 2020, Anahi Velasco, a spokesperson for the Moreno Valley Unified School district told Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC that the district "has taken several steps in the last year at all schools to address and prevent bullying and violence, such as increasing awareness and launching the 'Hearts YOUnited' campaign."
“The district is focused on preventing school violence while also providing assistance and education to students,’’ Velasco added at the time. “The safety and wellness of our students and staff continue to remain a top priority."
During the 2018-2019 school year, when Stolz was in the seventh grade, the 13-year-old was repeatedly verbally and physically bullied by several male students, according to the family's attorneys.
On Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, Diego reported the assault to the school's assistant principal, who according to the family's attorneys "promised to suspend the bullies for three days." Diego was told by the same assistant principal to take a day off from school.
According to the family's attorneys, despite the assistant principal's promises "the school did nothing that day or over the weekend to investigate the assault or to suspend the assailants" and failed to report "the assault to law enforcement, as required."
Stolz returned to school on Monday, Sept. 16, and was confronted by two of the bullies during lunch. Another student recorded the incident on their phone — the graphic video, viewed by TODAY.com, shows the 13-year-old standing with his arms by his side before one of the bullies punches him in the face. As Stolz staggers backward, the second student hits Stolz on the side of his head, knocking him to the ground. His head then hits a concrete pillar.
As the 13-year-old lays on the ground, one of the bullies punches him for a third time in his face before walking away.
The two underage assailants were charged with manslaughter, according to Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC. In November, 2020, the assailants pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, according to local news outlet KESQ News Channel 3.
According to the family's lawyers, Stolz suffered a brain injury due to the attack. Nine days after the assault, Stolz succumbed to his injuries and died "as a result of being bullied and punched," according to court documents.
In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that made it clear that it is legal for guardians to file civil lawsuit claims if a minor is a victim of a wrongful death or negligent act, if the minor's biological parents are deceased.
Stolz's mother and father died when he was a baby — he was being raised by his aunt, Juana Salcedo, and uncle, Felipe Salcedo.
The new law was "inspired by Diego's tragic death," the family's attorneys said in a written statement.