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Judge allows wrongful death case brought by Colleen Ritzer’s parents to head to trial

Colleen Ritzer.AP

An Essex Superior Court judge has denied an architecture firm’s request for a bench decision in a wrongful death case brought by the family of Colleen Ritzer, a Danvers High School teacher who was murdered by a student in a school bathroom in 2013, according to court documents.

Lawyers for Ritzer’s family have argued that DiNisco Design, a Boston firm that designed a nearly $80 million renovation to the high school, was aware that a new security camera system installed at the school would never work with the facility’s older technology, and that it was not working on the day Ritzer was killed by Philip Chism, a freshman.

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DiNisco Design has denied the claim, contending that the security cameras were working but the school had not assigned anyone to monitor them.

In a decision released Friday, Judge John Lu wrote that evidence shows DiNisco “knew that the System was not compatible with, and could never function properly with, the School’s existing technology, and that it clearly never notified the town about this incompatibility.”

“This is the key reason why this motion must be denied,” he wrote.

Lu wrote that it should be left to a jury, not a judge, to decide whether DiNisco “breached its duty of care” by not disclosing the issues with the system to the town.

Ritzer’s parents Peggie and Tom Ritzer first filed the lawsuit in 2016 against DiNisco, as well as the town of Danvers and a cleaning company employed by the school. The town and the cleaning company were later dropped from the suit.

Daniel Murphy, an attorney representing Ritzer’s family, said Monday that her parents are “pleased with the decision.”

“They filed this lawsuit wanting to get answers as to what happened that day, and if certain things could have been prevented,” he said in an interview, adding that the Ritzers are pursuing the case “not only on their behalf, but to promote school security and safety for teachers and students in the future.”

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In a statement Monday, DiNisco maintained that the security system did not fail on the day of the attack.

“The security system functioned properly, as specified, and indeed was the source of critical evidence necessary to prosecute Mr. Chism for the homicide of Ms. Ritzer,” the statement said. “Any decisions on the deployment of school staff for real-time monitoring of the system were exclusively the responsibility of Danvers High School administrators and other personnel.

“Our firm and our attorneys have been preparing since 2016 to present our case,” the statement continued. “We look forward to having that opportunity.”

Chism was convicted of first-degree murder for Ritzer’s death following a trial in 2015 and was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 40 years.

Video taken from the security system was used throughout the trial and showed Chism, then 14, following Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher, into a girls’ bathroom after school on Oct. 22, 2013. Chism exited the bathroom minutes later and then returned with a recycling cart before exiting a final time.

Chism raped and murdered Ritzer with a box cutter inside the bathroom. He then put her body into the recycling cart and dragged it into the woods behind the school, where Ritzer’s body was found hours later.

At a hearing last week, Murphy, the Ritzer’s attorney, read previously impounded e-mails from school officials and DiNisco executives dating back to nearly a year before the attack on Ritzer, which detailed the school’s struggles with its new surveillance system.

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A Danvers High School IT employee first told then-assistant principal Keith Taverna of issues with the camera system in November 2012, according to e-mails read by Murphy.

A vendor wrote in an e-mail near the end of 2012 that they “have never seen a worse software package” and attempted fixes were “like putting lipstick on a pig,” according to Murphy.

By September 2013, Taverna wrote in an e-mail that the camera system was “down completely” and that “this is obviously very important for the security of the building,” Murphy read. A temporary workaround was developed, but Murphy said that it was only implemented in November.

If the cameras had been working properly, someone could’ve intervened to stop Chism, Murphy said at the hearing.

Katherine Kenney, an attorney representing DiNisco, countered Murphy’s claim, arguing that no one was assigned to watch the live feed at the time of the attack and therefore no one could have intervened in time. Even if someone had seen the live video, Kenney said, the state medical examiner has determined the injuries inflicted on Ritzer in the school’s bathroom were lethal.

Material from previous Globe stories was used in this report.


Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.