Bryan Zavala, 19, a former Estancia High School student, nearly sliced off several fingers on his right hand during an accident in metal shop class when he was 16. A jury recently awarded the student $3.8 million in damages. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / July 29, 2014)

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  • Costa Mesa, CA, United States

Nearly three years after the accident at Estancia High School that left him without full use of his right hand, 19-year-old Bryan Zavala can still recall the smell of metal from the machine that claimed three of his fingers.

"It's still so vivid," he said. "I've had dreams about it."

A jury awarded Zavala $3.8 million in July for medical costs, future pain, suffering and impairment after a metal shop machine mangled three fingers on his dominant hand, according to court documents.

A judge must still affirm the jury's verdict, and lawyers for Newport-Mesa Unified School District could appeal the lawsuit.

District spokeswoman Laura Boss declined to comment this week, and it is unclear whether an appeal is planned.

Zavala's parents initially filed a claim with the district seeking reimbursement for their son's medical expenses, estimated at less than $25,000, according to an email shared among board members.

The board of education denied the claim, and Zavala's parents filed the lawsuit against the district in 2012.

Zavala had already submitted his metal shop project when he walked into his third-period class at Estancia High on Halloween 2011, he said in an interview.

He was surprised when his teacher called him to the front of the classroom and said he didn't have the project — a hammer the teen had made in class days earlier.

Not wanting his grade to suffer, Zavala started the project again, he said.

He was nearly finished when he went to grind a piece of metal that would act as the handle of the hammer.

In seconds, his hand was pulled into a gap between the disc sander and the work table, he said.

The wheel sliced three of his fingers, cutting through the bone of his middle finger.

"There was blood everywhere," he said. "You could see bone and the veins pumping. I was in shock."

Timothy Swift, an attorney representing Zavala, argued that the then-16-year-old was not taught the proper metal-grinding technique before he began working on his project.

The metal-grinding machine consists of a large wheel that spins in the center of the table. Proper protocol for grinding is to sit the metal piece on the table and place it against the flat part of the sander, Swift said.

The gap between the machine and the work table was too large, which allowed Zavala's fingers to become trapped, the attorney said.

Lawyers representing Newport-Mesa allege in court documents that the student was not cautious when he operated the machine and that the district did not create dangerous conditions in the classroom.

After the accident, Zavala was taken by ambulance to UCI Medical Center, where doctors struggled to repair his fingers, he said.

Doctors initially wanted to amputate, but Zavala's father urged them to do whatever was necessary to save his son's fingers.

Zavala underwent several surgeries, including one that removed bone from his toe to put in his middle finger. Still, nearly three years later, Zavala said he lives with constant pain in his right hand.

He still goes to physical therapy but said he's unable to use his dominant hand to complete tasks — like brushing his teeth — that he once found mundane.

"My little brothers tie my shoes for me," he said. "I can't even hold a glass of water if it's full."

Besides day-to-day tasks, the accident has affected his life in a way he didn't initially expect, Zavala said.

Before the accident, Zavala often played sports and video games at friends' houses, he said. Now he has stopped going out as much, instead retreating to the apartment he shares with his parents and younger brothers on Costa Mesa's Westside.

"People have a hard time understanding why I can't do the same things they can," he said. "They tell me to get over it. I don't want them to see me differently, and I know they do."

[For the record, 10:10 a.m. Aug. 11: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Timothy Swift as the lead trial attorney representing Bryan Zavala. Swift is one of several lawyers representing Zavala.]