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Family files lawsuit against school district for burns suffered by Encinitas student in science experiment

The experiment 13-year-old Priest Rivera and his classmates were participating in is called “black snake.”

SAN DIEGO — Last June, 13-year-old Priest Rivera suffered burns to his face, neck, and chest after a school science experiment allegedly went wrong. Last week, Priest’s family filed a lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court against the Encinitas Union School District citing negligence and negligent supervision and training.  

"You expect the school will provide a safe environment. This is an utter failure from the top down," said Dave Fox, the family's attorney. 

The incident happened in a sixth-grade classroom at Capri Elementary on June 13, 2019, just a week before school was out for the summer. The experiment Priest and his classmates were participating in is called “black snake” or “carbon snake” – where you ignite baking soda and sugar. The carbonate pushes out the melted sugar, forming a snake-like ash. 

“It wasn’t really working and the science teacher kept pouring more rubbing alcohol to make the flame build up more. It went wrong and blew up in my face,” Priest told News 8 in June 2019.  

He said his face, hair and neck were on fire and his friends were around him saying, “He’s on fire.”  

RELATED: Capri Elementary: Sixth grader severely burned after black snake experiment goes wrong

The teen spent a week at UCSD’s burn unit, according to court documents, and underwent four surgeries. He missed his school’s promotion ceremony as well.  

“Obviously there has to be more safety measures – goggles, hairnets, fire extinguishers,” Priest’s mother Gina Rivera said last year. 

The lawsuit filed on Dec. 30, 2019, alleges teacher Lori Feinberg “recklessly” performed the “dangerous” science experiment which involved alcohol and flames “in windy conditions.” The suit also alleges that Ms. Feinberg didn’t give safety instructions to the students before the “black snake” experiment was carried out. It also says the district and teacher did not provide protective glasses or other safety equipment to the students. The complaint also claims the experiment caused “severe and permanent injuries to Priest.”  

"He has to wear his bucket hat every single day at school," said Jason Rivera, Priests' father. 

The district and teacher are accused of failing to maintain a safe environment for the students and subjecting Priest to “unreasonable risk.”  

"This was a very reckless experiment without any protection, no fire blanket, no goggles - outside in windy conditions," said Fox. 

The suit seeks a jury trial and does not specify an amount of money sought in the lawsuit, but rather says that the amount of relief should be determined at trial.  

News 8 reached out to Encinitas Union School District about the lawsuit but the district declined to comment.

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