The Kedar Williams Case

$2 Million Settlement and Countywide Policy Changes for our Schools

Photo Caption: This historical case resolution highlights the impact of a father’s loss of his only son, negotiated $2 million settlement and the safety training policy changes to be implemented within the Palm Beach County’s school district to prevent such choking death from occurring again.

What should have been a normal school day for Kedar Williams ended before noon on August 13, 2019, in tragedy. While at William T. Dwyer High School, Kedar an autistic exceptional needs student was left unattended while eating lunch in the cafeteria and choked to death. The sheer negligence of the school catapulted a wrongful death lawsuit under civil rights violation and a meaningful resolution.

Kedar Williams, age 18 had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder that affects communications and behavior. He was able to speak a few words and communicated in a manner that those who got to know him understood, including his needs, likes, and joys like saying nightly prayers before bed. Kedar had attended Dwyer High for several years and the school knowingly and informatively accepted the responsibility for him as a student. The school district and Dwyer High were on notice for years of Kedar’s risks and special attention required. Yet, the school’s failure to adhere to the medical notifications and its own policies to keep Kedar safe resulted in him choking to death.

The delicacy of Kedar’s autism led his doctors to outline specific instructions for which an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) was devised, provided, and reviewed with his parents, caretakers, and school district indicating among other things, that Kedar could never be left alone while eating. His food had to be cut into small pieces and he required 1:1 supervision to avoid the risk for aspiration and choking.

Non-custodial father’s care: Divorce of parents is not a divorce of the child. His parents, Jeffrey Williams and Megan Williams were divorced at the time of Kedar’s death. With shared parental rights, Megan Williams, represented by Attorney Sia Baker Barnes of Searcy Denny, was Kedar’s primary custodial parent and caretaker. Kedar was loved immensely by both parents and extended family and cared for at each parent’s home as was necessary for his safety.

Often, noncustodial fathers are not seen as caring, concerned, not included, or just on the fringes of fatherhood.

Jeffrey Williams, an educator and college readiness mentor of Black young men within the Polk County School District, not only loved his son but showed his love. His bond with Kedar was proud and inclusive. He spent time with Kedar not shunning him but rather integrating him with supervision in everyday activities with others. Mr. Williams provided meaningful exposures to Kedar such as cultural art festivals, the beach, swimming, amusement parks and several college bus tours throughout the country. Interacting with non-autistically challenged students was a mutual benefit for all students and chaperones as they learned tolerance and acceptance.

There is nothing in the natural order of the universe for a child to predecease the parent. The loss of Jeffrey Williams’ first born and only son is a visceral shock to the system that shakes to the core. The parental divorce was not a divorce of the son that he loved.

Photo Caption: (L) Attorney Salesia Smith-Gordon, (R) Attorney Sia Baker-Barnes

The Real Impact of Changed Policies and Procedures

The Williams family needed lawyers who would take a risk on them to challenge a governmental system and amplify their voices for fair justice and accountability. Jeffrey Williams, Kedar’s father, was represented by Attorney Salesia Smith-Gordon. Kedar’s mother, Megan Williams, was represented by Attorney Sia Baker-Barnes of the law firm of Searcy Denney. Together, the firms worked on the issues alleging the wrongful death claim was due to federal civil rights violations. Investigations, persistent, zealous representation, and strategic negotiations ensued for months ultimately resulting in a successful resolution of $2 million settlement against the governmental agency (PBC School District) where the statutory cap (maximum) is $300,000 and resolved without the need for the legislature to pass a special claims bill.

Although Palm Beach County School Board accepted responsibility, agreed to the $2 million settlement and agreed to implement stronger and mandatory safety training for exceptional students, it will never bring Kedar back. The filial consortium damages (the loss of love, affection and companionship) is an award of damages intended to compensate the parent(s) for such loss resulting in significant injury or death of a child. That society and affectionate companionship, no matter the health challenges, is a tremendous loss to his parents and siblings.

This historical case boldly demonstrates the tenacity of a legal fight for accountability and change, not just for Kedar but for the Palm Beach County community, particularly for families with special needs students. Kedar will be remembered forever as the name of the safety training program to be launched in August 2021 is forever the “Kedar Elijah Williams Exceptional Student Education Training Program.” As his father Jeffrey Williams often said, “we must not allow autism to be silenced.”

Photo Caption: Jeffrey and Kedar Williams enjoying vacation time. Kedar pictured with Buggs Bunny