Georgia school district pays $10M settlement

A school district in Georgia has agreed to pay $10 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a high school basketball player who died after suffering heatstroke at a practice in 2019, according to the family's attorneys.

Imani Bell was a 16-year-old junior at her first conditioning practice of the year for the Elite Scholars Academy girls basketball team in August 2019 when she collapsed while running the stairs outside the school. A medical examiner later determined that Bell died from heatstroke.

The school, located about 20 miles south of Atlanta, allegedly did not have required equipment for reducing the risk of heat-related injuries -- such as cold tubs, spray bottles and iced towels -- on a day when the temperature reached into the high 90s and the heat index was above 100 degrees, according to the lawsuit. The Georgia High School Association has specific rules for schools to monitor and mitigate the risks of playing sports in the heat. Bell's family and its attorneys said the school did not follow those rules.

While the school did not acknowledge fault as part of the settlement, Bell's lawyer said the family appreciated that the school recognized the value of her life.

"I think for once a school district made a statement that a child's life is more important than any sport," said Justin Miller of Stewart Miller Simmons, who represented the family. "That should be followed by every school around the country."

Eric Bell, Imani's father and a girls' basketball coach at another Georgia high school, said he considered the settlement a "great gesture" that "shows that the school district recognizes the promise was so great for her. It says a lot about her character and what they thought of her character."

The risk of heat-related illness in sports has risen steadily in the past decade as temperatures have set record highs, according to sports ecology researchers such as Texas A&M's Jessica Murfree. Several states have adopted policies or laws designed to keep athletes safe and avoid what researchers describe as avoidable deaths.

Bell's case resulted in the highest settlement payment among a series of similar recent high-profile cases. The University of Maryland paid $3.5 million in 2021 to settle with the parents of Jordan McNair, who died weeks after suffering heatstroke at an offseason football practice. This March a school district in California paid $9 million to settle claims related to the death of a 15-year-old football player in Los Angeles.

Bell's death drew national attention, especially after the two coaches who were present for the practice that led to her death were charged with felony murder and child cruelty. Georgia law stipulates that if someone dies while an inherently dangerous felony is being committed, the alleged felon can also be charged with murder. The criminal case remains open.

Eric Bell said the family plans to use money from the settlement to help fund the Keep Imani Foundation they have established in her memory. The foundation plans to create an engineering scholarship, help children who need glasses and try to provide cold tubs for every high school athletic department in the state of Georgia in hopes of avoiding future heat-related deaths.

As part of the settlement, Elite Scholars Academy also agreed to rename its school gym in honor of Imani Bell. A school employee confirmed a renaming ceremony for the gym is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Eric Bell said he and his family will be there for the ceremony.

"It'll be bittersweet," he said. "I'd trade anything to have her here with me, but we want to keep her name going and this provides an opportunity for our family to keep her name going."