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School District Faces Trial Over Man Injured by Cannon at Football Game

Georgia law prohibits individuals from carrying “weapons” in any public school. There are exceptions for law enforcement who need to carry firearms in carrying out their official duties. But the Georgia legislature has made it clear that schools are supposed to be “gun free zones.”

Boatright v. Copeland

There was an interesting personal injury lawsuit recently before the Georgia Court of Appeals. The plaintiff was “assisting in loading and firing a cannon owned by the Appling County School District.” The cannon was used outdoors during Appling County High School’s football games. The plaintiff was compressing gunpowder in the cannon with a rod when the cannon suddenly discharged, causing permanent injury to the plaintiff’s right hand. The plaintiff subsequently sued the school district, as well as the superintendent of schools and individual school board members.

The trial court dismissed the case, holding all of the individual defendants were entitled to official immunity under Georgia law. Official immunity means a government official cannot be held liable in a civil lawsuit for their “discretionary acts.” A discretionary act is essentially any decision that requires the exercise of personal judgment by the official and is made without “willfulness, malice, or corruption.”

The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal, arguing the decision to even have a cannon on school grounds was not a discretionary act, but rather a violation of Georgia law prohibiting weapons of any kind on school property. The Court of Appeals agreed and returned the plaintiff’s lawsuit to the lower court for trial.

Official immunity does not apply in cases where an official has a “ministerial duty” to comply with the law. Here, the plaintiff alleged the school district had a cannon—a weapon—on school grounds in direct violation of Georgia law. Specifically, the law states it is a criminal violation for “any person to carry to or to possess or have under such person’s control while within a school safety zone, [or] at a school function . . . any weapon or explosive compound.” The Court of Appeals noted that cannons are “generally designed to propel missiles,” which would qualify it as a weapon under this definition. The plaintiff’s case is based on the fact the cannon discharged and seriously injured him.

Assuming the plaintiff can therefore prove the cannon is a “weapon,” the Court of Appeals said it would clearly be prohibited under the law. There are some circumstances where a weapon may be present on school grounds, such as the law enforcement exception noted above. In this case, the appeals court said the only exception that might apply is one for items “used for classroom work authorized by the teacher.” The court immediately rejected that line of inquiry, however, noting “a cannon on a football field as part of a football game’s festivities” is not “classroom work.”

The school district argued that it should still be granted official immunity because it mistakenly assumed the “classroom work” exception would apply to the use of a cannon at football claims. The Court of Appeals disagreed. School boards and school officials have no discretion in this area, the court said, even if the defendants think it is “absurd” to allow weapons in the classroom but not the football field.