Deaf woman wins lawsuit against Missouri nursing school

A Greene County jury has sided with a woman who sued a Springfield nursing school after she was dismissed two semesters into her program because she is deaf.

Cox College of Nursing should have provided Jessica Wells with reasonable accommodations that would have allowed her to complete the program, the jury said Aug. 9. Online court records show Wells was awarded $50,000 in the case.

Dr. Lance Ratcliff, interim president at Cox College, there were minimum requirements for students to participate in the program and that if the physical standards can’t be met, patient safety can be compromised.

“For example, nurses are required to use their judgment when listening to certain patient sounds, and use of an interpreter to interpret these sounds is not appropriate and is unsafe in our opinion,” Ratliff said. “Student nurses are involved in patient care during the clinical portion of the nursing program, and patient safety is always our No. 1 priority.”

The school hasn’t decided whether it will appeal the decision.

Wells had completed two semesters of the program by using a mix of volunteer note-takers, recordings and interpreters. But when the time came for more hands-on work in the third semester, administrators feared she’d jeopardize patients’ safety.

One of her lawyers, Rita Sanders, filed the lawsuit in 2009 accusing the school of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

An initial summary judgment favored Cox, but Wells appealed, and the Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals overturned the decision, sending the case back to Greene County.

“The reasonable inference from these undisputed facts is that her past success proves her ability to utilize the (nursing) program in its current form with reasonable accommodation,” the appeals ruling noted.

Wells said she has chosen not to return to the college. She now works with deaf students and is pursuing a degree at Missouri State University.

“I hope that it does set an example,” she said of the decision.