Parents entrust their children to a number of responsible adults every day, including teachers and bus drivers. When something goes wrong and the child is injured–or even killed–while under another person’s care, the parents understandably want to hold that person responsible. Unfortunately, the law does not always help parents in this regard, particularly when the responsible person happens to be a public employee.
Odum v. Harn
A recent ruling from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Odum v. Harn, typifies the uphill battle parents face when seeking accountability. This case involves a 2013 accident that resulted in the death of a 5-year-old child. The victim was riding on a Bryan County school bus operated by the defendant.
The defendant stopped the bus across the street from the victim’s home. In stopping, the defendant activated the bus’ flashing red lights, stop arm, and crossing gate. The victim still needed to cross the road to reach his house. Unfortunately, a truck driver ignored the warning from the stop arm of the bus and proceeded to strike and kill the victim.
The victim’s parents subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging the defendant’s negligence led to their child’s death. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged the defendant failed to follow Georgia Department of Education regulations by not waiting “until all traffic [had] stopped” before letting their child off the bus, and by failing to “continuously use both direct vision and mirrors to identify any moving traffic” that could hit a child crossing the street.
The defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit, citing her official immunity as a state employee. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, and the Court of Appeals initially affirmed that ruling.
Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court ordered the Court of Appeals to reconsider the case in light of its own ruling in a separate lawsuit, Barnett v. Caldwell. In Barnett, the Supreme Court clarified the rules of civil liability applicable to public school employees accused of negligence in the wrongful death of a student under their care. The Court explained that such employees are not immune from lawsuit for “ministerial” acts–i.e., their failure to follow “simply, absolute, and definite” duties required by law or policy. In contrast, an employee is immune for any “discretionary act” that “calls for the exercise of personal deliberation and judgment.”
Applying this standard, the Court of Appeals said the bus driver was still immune from the parents’ lawsuit. At the time of the accident, the defendant “was exercising discretionary judgment as to whether any vehicles on the same road were stationary or moving toward the bus such that the child should or should not be released.” She did not violate any clearly established policy, and there was no evidence she “intentionally ignored any oncoming vehicle.”