Ex-student says state liable for fingers injured in musical-chairs exercise

A former College of the Ouachitas student is seeking $75,000 in damages from the state for two fingers broken during a classroom game of musical chairs.

Robin Earnest, 46, of Saline County filed a claim with the Arkansas Claims Commission in November 2011, about seven months after she injured her hand during what was supposed to be a "motivation exercise."

Earnest and two other students in her psychology class were vying for one available seat when the accident occurred. Earnest won the game but said she was wounded in the process.

On Thursday, she told the commission that she was compelled to participate in order to earn class credit. She argued that the game was unsafe and that the organizer negligently failed to abide by universally recognized musical chair rules.

The state should pay her, she said, for the ordeal, which resulted in years of surgeries and physical therapy, plus mental and emotional distress.

Attorneys with the Arkansas attorney general's office denied the school in Malvern was negligent. They said Earnest admitted long ago that she'd damaged her hand while helping someone move.

The commission heard a few hours of testimony Thursday but didn't issue a ruling. If commissioners determine the state was negligent, Earnest will be given a separate hearing to determine damages.

According to documents filed with the commission, Earnest, a Texas native, and her husband are both on federal disability and support themselves and their children with payments from the state.

Earnest, who was on the dean's list at the time, told commissioners that she took part in the musical chairs game because she didn't want to forfeit "participation points" that were available.

Video of the March 17, 2011, competition showed Earnest and six classmates competing for three chairs; eventually only three competitors and one seat remained.

With a beverage koozie and bragging rights up for grabs, the contestants jostled for position. Earnest said she was pushed and banged her hand against the back of the metal chair and she "instantly" felt pain.

At Thursday's hearing, her attorney, Robert Cortinez, argued the instructor, June Prince, did not follow the standard rules for musical chairs and that Earnest felt obligated to participate for fear of her grade.

It was unreasonable, she maintained, for the state to have three people jockeying for just one seat.

"How many times have you played musical chairs?" Countered Assistant Attorney General Katina Hodge.

"I'm 46 years old," Earnest responded. "I honestly couldn't tell you how many times I've played but I can tell you that there are two chairs to three people."

Prince told Cortinez that she had done the activity before, and wouldn't have docked a student for objecting to the game.

Earnest was treated at the emergency room and the college paid the bill.

Prince said she discussed the injury with Earnest roughly two weeks after the game and that Earnest said she'd reinjured her fingers by slamming them into a door while helping someone move to a new residence.

Both Earnest and her husband denied that before the commission Thursday.

State attorneys have argued that more than evidence of an accident is needed to prove negligence. In a brief submitted to the commission, they questioned whether anyone has ever been found negligent for organizing this particular activity.

"As musical chairs is a game commonly played by school-age children across the country, there is simply no basis for [Earnest] to claim that it was negligent for the College to allow adults to participate in this type of activity," state attorneys wrote. "During the years that [Prince] had facilitated this activity, no student had ever been injured. In short, it was simply not foreseeable that [Earnest] would be injured."

Metro on 07/10/2015