Josh Ward, 19, was injured in a table saw accident at Sisters High School in December by Jim Cornelius
Josh Ward, 19, was injured in a table saw accident at Sisters High School in December by Jim Cornelius

A Sisters High School senior who was seriously injured in a woodshop accident at the school in December 2012 is suing the Sisters School District (SSD) for current and future medical expenses and damages for a total of over $6 million.

Joshua Ward, now 19, lost the ring and pinky fingers of his left hand and suffered severe damage to the other fingers and thumb in an accident involving a table saw. He has lost sensation in his fingers and hand and has lost some use of that hand.

The school district's insurance company will handle the case. In an interview with The Nugget, Ward's family emphasized that they are not "going after" the school district.

"This is all about insurance," said Ward family attorney, Tom D'Amore. "The school district may even feel like they want to help this family, but they can't. No taxpayer dollars are going to be involved... This is why the school district buys insurance. Mistakes happen; accidents happen."

Ward was injured on December 19, 2012, while acting as a teacher's aide to woodshop teacher Tony Cosby. According to Ward, Cosby asked him to cut a board into several long strips for use in the guitar-making class. Ward used a table saw.

"The piece of wood lifted slightly off the table ... and pulled my hand into the blade and threw the board across the room and punched a hole in the wall," Ward recalled.

"I felt warmth coming down my wrist and a student standing next to me said, 'You need to look at your hand.'"

Ward's mother, Angela, said, "The ER doctor said it was the worst hand injury he'd ever seen."

Several surgeries were required to fuse a joint in Ward's thumb and to reattach the fingers that were hanging by shreds of skin.

The suit alleges negligence in "failing to warn (Ward) of the dangers of the table saw and safety guard" and lack of proper supervision. The suit further alleges "inadequate safety training to (Ward) and similarly situated high school students" and negligence "in allowing an instructor inadequately trained in the safe operation of the table saw to instruct and train (Ward) and other ... high school students."

Ward wants to see school districts mandated to purchase saws with updated technology that can sense when a body part is in contact with the blade and stop the blade.

Joshua cited SawStop out of Tigard, Oregon, for its use of sensors that can pick up contact with the skin (due to conductivity) and can stop a saw blade in five milliseconds.

Angela Ward noted that the school district purchased a new table saw after her son's accident.

"We were very thankful they did that, because we don't want this to happen to any other student," she said. "Just wish it had been there for my son."

Attorney D'Amore said that while a mandate would have to come legislatively, a lawsuit can "help wake people up."

He said, "These electric saws in schools, they should be replaced. There's a real danger to students when they're operating these tools."

The suit names woodshop teacher Tony Cosby, which attorney D'Amore said is legally necessary.

That's not an easy thing for Josh.

"He was just really supportive," Ward said. "While I was in the hospital, he visited me every day except Christmas. It's hard to do this."

Ward has significant ongoing medical expenses. He's had six surgeries so far, and one is scheduled for May to open up the webbing at his thumb so he can grasp larger objects like a water glass.

The loss of fingers and sensation has caused him difficulties in day-to-day life. "Everyday things that people take for granted are a lot harder," Josh said.

Simply buttoning a shirt or tying shoes is a more complicated endeavor. He's glad to be back on the field playing lacrosse, but he has to be careful to protect his vulnerable left hand.

His mother Angela had mixed feelings about Josh's return to lacrosse, for which he has a real passion.

"I was scared to death for him - but it was such a joy to see him play," she said.

The injury has not just impeded his daily life. Josh wanted to be a firefighter/paramedic. That's out, because his hand could never take the wear and tear of that profession. He's shifted his goal to nursing, and has been accepted into a program at Linfield College.

Josh's medical ordeal is ongoing. Nerve and vascular damage to his remaining fingers mean he is vulnerable to infection. In fact, he's already lost a quarter-inch off his reattached index finger due to an infection that went into the bone and took nine months to knock out. The treatment that finally worked was an arduous cycle of 45 hyperbaric chamber sessions administered five days a week.

Medical expenses have piled up and will continue to do so.

D'Amore said the SSD insurance company offered a settlement of $60,000, which won't cover the medical bills.

"This has put a huge strain on us financially," said Joshua. "This felt like the only route to take care of that."

The Sisters School District superintendent, board chair, and vice chair were all out of town. In their absence, board member Andrew Gorayeb told The Nugget, "I know Josh personally. He's a great kid and this is a terrible tragedy. Other than that, I can't comment on pending litigation."

The suit seeks $363,699 in economic damages for medical and related expenses; damages for future medical expenses of $200,000; loss of earning capacity and retraining expenses up to $2.5 million, and non-economic damages not to exceed $3 million.

The suit was filed in Deschutes County Circuit Court on Thursday, March 27.