Town, cleaning company found not liable in Ritzer murder

Colleen Ritzer

DANVERS — A Lawrence Superior Court judge has dismissed two of the three counts in a lawsuit brought by the Andover family of a Danvers High School teacher killed by one of her students nearly five years ago. 

While calling the Oct. 22, 2013, rape and murder of Colleen Ritzer "heartbreaking," Judge Jeffrey Karp concluded that under the circumstances of the case, he could not find that the defendants — the town of Danvers, the school's architect and a cleaning firm — were liable for emotional distress suffered by the Andover woman's parents and siblings.

The ruling leaves standing only a wrongful death claim against the architect, DiNisco Design Partnership. 

The 24-page decision was filed Friday, a month and a half after a hearing in Lawrence Superior Court. 

Philip Chism, a then-14-year-old freshman in Ritzer's math class, was found guilty in 2015 of raping, robbing and murdering the teacher, and is serving a prison term of 40 years to life. 

Karp noted in his ruling that during the entire time frame that Chism was moving around the school, no school personnel noticed "Chism's obvious suspicious behavior," nor was anyone monitoring the video images captured live on a monitor in the school's central office." 

The Ritzers, in their complaint, alleged that the town negligently inflicted emotional distress against them when they failed to keep Colleen Ritzer safe and then when it failed to alert them to an ongoing situation when she was attacked.

The Ritzers also alleged the town inflicted emotional distress on the family when it allowed SJ Services, a cleaning company hired to work at the school, to clean blood and other potential forensic evidence from the bathroom where Colleen Ritzer was attacked, and then failing to report what the workers had seen to law enforcement in a timely manner. 

The town had argued for dismissal on several grounds, including a claim of immunity under state law, the failure to properly give the town advance notice of the suit, and finally, under a precedent set in a 1978 Supreme Judicial Court decision that dealt with liability for emotional injuries to so-called "bystanders."

That case involved an incident in 1973 when a girl was struck by a car as she stepped off a school bus; her mother died while riding with her to the hospital in an ambulance and her father died 23 months later from medical conditions that were blamed on the trauma of the event. 

The SJC concluded in that case that such a claim could only go forward when a parent either witnessed the traumatic event or comes upon the scene while the child is still there.

The Ritzer complaint, the judge found, "does not allege that any of the plaintiffs witnessed Chism's attack, came upon the crime scene while Colleen was still there, or even observed the horrifically bloody crime scene." Based on that, he granted the town and SJ's motion to dismiss the emotional distress counts. 

However, in the event of an appeal on that issue, Karp also addressed the question of immunity, finding that the town and school are not immune from liability because they were negligent in maintaining the security system and because of unresolved questions about whether the school had an adequate security plan. 

As to SJ Services, the cleaning company under contract to the school, Karp found that the firm did not owe a duty of care to the Ritzer family that would make them legally liable. 

The remaining count, a wrongful death claim against DiNisco, was allowed to stand, after Karp concluded that the "negligent design and implementation of the security system as a whole was a substantial contributing factor in causing Colleen's death." 

Daniel Murphy, the attorney representing Ritzer's family, said he is exploring a potential appeal. 

"We respect the decision of the court, but we will of course evaluate potential appeal issues," said Murphy, who represents Peggie, Tom, Dan and Laura Ritzer. "Most importantly, the case continues against the architects, and the Ritzer family continues to hope the process provides some answers."

Murphy said he believes Karp "gave us a very fair hearing." 

He said the case will move forward against the sole remaining defendant, the architect. Asked if there has been any progress toward the court-sanctioned conciliation suggested by Karp, Murphy said he's made it clear that he and his clients are open to moving toward conciliation, "but I can't speak for the defendants." 

"Colleen's death was a tragedy for the whole community and our hearts go out to the Ritzer family," the town of Danvers said in a statement responding to the ruling. "We understand the desire of Colleen's family to seek some measure of judicial relief for the tragic death of their daughter and sister."

"We are committed to continuing Colleen Ritzer's legacy of kindness and dedication to teaching," the statement continued. "We know Colleen's message 'No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.' Her message will live on in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved her."

Town Clerk Joe Collins, who is filling in for Town Manager Steve Bartha while he is out of town, said he feels he's come to know Ritzer through the efforts of her family to honor her memory. 

Michael Stone, an attorney representing DiNisco, said his clients are "disappointed" by the ruling. 

"The video monitoring system included in our firm’s design for Danvers High School met all specifications set forth by the town of Danvers and its police department, and is considered best in class for its purpose," said Stone in a statement on behalf of the firm.

"As the architectural firm of record for the project, our contract was specific and exclusively limited to the design of the surveillance equipment, it did not include staffing, personnel, or monitoring of the system," the statement said. "At the time of the incident, the system was working as designed and the video surveillance system was an integral factor in assisting in the prosecution and conviction of the murderer."

A message left for attorneys for SJ Services was not returned by Tuesday afternoon. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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